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Evolution of an Asshole

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Billy Hargrove knows he's an asshole.

Hell, catch him at the right time, he might even revel in it.

Growing up with his Dad was all about survival, and survival meant becoming an asshole. Even if that meant most of Hawkins thought he was a sociopath, including his step sister, Max.

Not that she didn't have good reason, after what he'd done to Steve Harrington; after everything he'd done to her.

After Lucas.

When he thought of it at all, Billy liked to tell himself his shitty behavior was necessary; that he'd been preparing Max for life with Dad; toughening her up. After all, he wasn't planning to stay in Hawkins a hot second, once he had that diploma in hand. And with him gone? With him gone, she'd need to learn to watch her attitude, to be on time.....to stay away from "undesirables".

Some part of his brain; that traitorous, dumb, doe eyed part that he had all but shut down by 17 -- knew that his own personal road to hell was being paved with half formed intentions and plenty of bullshit. That same little voice liked to say he probably deserved to be drugged and left on the Beyer's cheap linoleum.

The rest of him was just pissed.

FINE.

Let Max learn the hard way. Just like he had.

Turned out, the old man was even less patient than Billy imagined. Once he stopped trying to manhandle Maxine off the train tracks of Dad's temper, it didn't take long at all. A couple conversations with that spineless wife about how her daughter needed a "firm hand" and he had free reign.

Max started taking her own lumps; he walled up what was left of his conscience, turned up his music, and let it happen.

She snuck out one too many times and got introduced to Dad's belt.
Billy went for a drive and pretended not to know what was happening.

She got caught kissing Sinclair (undesirable, per his father's fucked up values) and there was a Max shaped dent in the living room plaster.
Billy turned up his music and smoked every cigarette he owned.

Smoking in the girls room at almost-14 led to a black eye and a visit from Sherriff Hopper.
Billy swore up and down everything was fine. Then again, so did Max. FOSTER CARE had been carefully explained to her as the only just punishment for kids who ratted to cops.

His senior year, a phone call came in the middle of the night. He heard Susan's voice through the door, thin and urgent.

Max's dad was dead.
Billy's dad said he'd sooner fuck a goat than give "that kid" money to go back to Cali for the funeral.

He heard her sobs through the wall that night and he tried to think she deserved it but....well, the Beyer's kitchen floor had been months ago by then, and this was her father, after all.

He stood outside her door and thought about knocking.

In the end, he shuffled to the bathroom instead; took a leak and went to bed, stuffing his head under the pillow and counting down the days until graduation.

 

The day after Susan and Dad died, Billy got a letter in the mail. It was a copy of Susan's will, and a piece of cheap writing paper fell out when he unfolded it.

"What the fuck?"

He bent down, cigarette in mouth, and considered squashing it under his boot and leaving it there.

But, he was curious. Maybe she was planning to leave him some money or something, he thought, glancing ruefully at his shithole apartment building.

Dear Billy,

Enclosed is a copy of my will. By the time you get this, you will need it.

Please take care of Max. I know you two aren't close, but I still remember how good you were to her in the beginning. I've made a mess of my life and hers. I think you might be the only one who can understand her.

Maybe you can help each other.

Love,
Susan

He flipped the envelope over, shaded his eyes with a hand, and studied it. Although his box had been stuffed full with about 3 days mail, according to the postmark, this one had just arrived.

In the year that he'd lived on his own, back in good old California (which, the little voice reminded him, was actually not as good as in his memories), he hadn't heard a peep out of anyone in Hawkins, but he figured if she died, someone would have gotten in touch.

Then again, the note said he would need it, by the time it arrived.

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

He tried to put it to the back of his mind; slammed the mailbox shut without even locking it, and went for a walk to clear his head and have a smoke.

This had to be a prank. Everyone knew he and Max were combustible.

Next thing he knew, he was standing in front of the pay phone, outside the liquor store. He didn't think about why he was suddenly nervous, didn't think about the quarters feeling hot and sticky in his fingers, just dropped them in and dialed the phone.

1 ring. 2 rings.

"Hullo, Hargroves."

"Hey uh, this is Billy," he paused, licking his lips, "who is this?"

"Billy Hargrove?"

"Yeah, man, the fuck do you think?"

There was a pause at the end of the line, an exchange of male voices. A new guy on the phone.

"Kid, this is Chief Hopper, we've been trying to reach you. You need to come home. There's been an emergency."

 

Billy Hargrove knows he's an asshole.

He also knows, as much as he'd like to deny it, there are other parts to him.

One of those parts is currently yammering away in the back of his skull as he speeds along the interstate, trying to pretend he's not 100% shitting his shorts about whatever the hell is going on at home.

He turns up the music. Smacks the steering wheel. Tries not to think about the will.

By the time he finally gets there, he's got the little voice knocked flat and he's operating on adrenaline. He puts on his poker face and leaves it on while Hopper explains about the car, and the hose; the rags in the windows and the dead couple sitting inside. He keeps it on when he sees the suicide note that amounts to nothing more than one last, giant "fuck you" from his Dad.

He damn sure keeps it on when Max, upon seeing him, starts screaming hysterically and has to be sedated.

 

The next day she wakes up late, comes out and catches him staring at the papers in front of him. He eyes her warily, and she shrugs, slipping the paper from under his finger tips and muttering. "The hell is this?"

She sounds so much like him that it knocks his poker face right off and he stares at her. Suddenly, she shoves the paper back to him like it burned her, takes a step back and says, "NO."

"Jesus," he says, immediately irritated, "like I'm excited about it? You think I wanna move back to this shithole town and deal with your sorry ass?"

Max is staring at him. Her hair is shorter now, face harder. He can see the wheels turning.

"Look," he says at last, trying for sympathetic but his voice isn't having it, "I've been over and over it all night. I even asked the cop what he could tell me about it. As far as I see it, it's me or foster care."

She stares at him some more and the look in her eye is making him want to punch something but he's not sure why and he doesn't move.

"I can take care of myself. I'll run away." She says at last, sitting in the chair across from him like this is a perfectly reasonable suggestion and he has no reason to object.

And the thing is, he knows he really doesn't. Why should he care what she does, as long as she's no longer his problem? Just because Susan wrote him a few lines on cheap notebook paper?

But...what she'd written about the in the beginning. He has an involuntary flash of looking down to that little red head, bobbing in the sun beside him, sticky fingers holding his hand.

"That's a shitty idea." he says. "How are you going to support yourself?"

She snorts.

"How are YOU going to support me?"

"Well it sure in shit won't be with back alley blow jobs." he shoots back, angry.

That shuts her up. She studies him and he realizes, with a lurch in his gut that he honestly hates, that she knows he's right.

"I could work at McDonald's once I'm 16." She says, but it's half hearted. She sighs. "Look, I know you don't want to do this. I know you have a life back in California. I mean, we can't stand each other." She pauses, licks dry lips, "Maybe I can ask someone..."

A terse laugh escapes from somewhere in his chest, earning him a dirty look. He knows she has no friends left to call, she scared them all away even before he'd peeled out of this town, hell bent for leather. She did, after all, go to the Billy Hargrove school of survival, even if she never passed the final.

Friends are a liability

The seconds tick by.

Billy feels like should say something, but he mostly wants to run like hell, and he figures that's not going to help. He doesn't actually have much of a life "back in California", at all, unless you count an efficiency with broken A/C and a string of girls (and boys, the little voice reminds unhelpfully) who rightfully hate his guts.

Words stall in his throat, and the poker face goes on.

Finally, Max rolls her eyes, pushing off from the table. They both know he's no knight in shining armor. "I got it. It's not your problem, it's mine, and I'll figure it out. Just give me a day or two."

FINE, he thinks, headache blooming between the eyes. Every man for himself, she's right about that. Put a check in the lesson book, she finally figured it out.

He goes out to grab a couple beers but he runs into Harrington and that sure in hell isn't a hornets nest he wants to stick his hand into just yet, so he sneaks out the back and goes home. Goes in his old room, picking things up and putting them down, trying not to think.

He can hear Max's sobs through the wall, just like when her Dad died.

He thinks she must not know he's home.

He thinks she's such an ugly crier.

He thinks he probably owes her one. The little voice gets it's foot in that notch, and then it gets louder; telling him damn straight he OWES her, reminds him what a controlling ASSHOLE he was, reminds him how he turned his back the last time he heard her cries.

Before he knows it, before he can think about it, he's standing in her room with his hands shoved in his pockets and a smoke dangling out of his mouth.

"I'll stay in Hawkins until you graduate." he says, "Just quit fucking blubbering."

If he's expecting gratitude, he's sorely mistaken.

She chucks a water glass at his head.

 

Billy Hargrove knows he's an asshole, but he thinks he owes Max big time, too. So, he tells himself it's temporary, but he stays.

That doesn't stop him from wanting to kill her half the time.

He tries to establish ground rules a couple weeks after they bury the parents. He has to, because the county isn't altogether thrilled with the arrangement, will or no will, and the social worker spent their entire first meeting giving him the stink eye.

Also, he landed a job at the local garage, and damned if he can't sleep at night knowing she's out all hours. He tells himself, in a very firm internal voice, that he only cares because Dad spent so much time pounding "keep an eye on Max" into his head.

He comes home for a bite at lunch, on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon when she should be at school, and corners her.

"Look," he says, "I really don't give a shit what time you come home but that social worker," he pauses, warily taking in her glare, "if you want this to work you gotta pull it together."

"Fine," says Max, "I'll be home by midnight."

"Ten"

She laughs. "You high?"

He stares at her and she stares back. He used to be able to back her down with that stare, but those days are seemingly gone. She got toughened up, alright, one way or another. He knows he can't give in, but he's thinking about it, just the same, when she buckles; throws her eyes to the table and mutters, "eleven".

"Ten thirty."

Jesus Christ, he feels like he's haggling over a car he already knows is a lemon.

"Fine." She huffs. Crosses her arms. "Whatever."

"No whatever, shitbird. Ten thirty."

She doesn't say anything to that and he resists the urge to turn into his father and demand verbal compliance or start bawling her out for skipping school.

Mentally, he counts to ten.

"And you gotta quit smoking."

"The hell I do!" she shouts, jumping out of her chair.

"Social worker." he sais, voice low and even.

"If I have to quit," she says, "so do you."

"If I quit, I will kill you." He says, matter of factly. They both know that is quite possibly true. Smoking is one of the few things that keeps him calm.

"What else?" she asks, petulant.

"Grades." He grits out, and then, with an exaggerated glance around the kitchen, "And no more skipping."

"Fuck you, Billy. You barely graduated, you don't get to talk to me about grades."

That is it. 100% it. He's on his feet fast enough to wobble the chair on its legs. "For the last time," he says, loud but (he assures himself) not yelling yet, "it's not ME, it's the county. If you want to make this work and stay in this house and not have to go live with strangers, this is what you have to do."

She gets on her feet, too.

"And what do YOU have to do, while I'm doing all this?"

"Oh, I don't know, Max," he's shouting now, all attempts at patience gone, "maybe what I'll have to do is put my life on hold and come back here to a place I hate to help your ungrateful ass out?"

Those blue eyes narrow to slits.

"I think I'll take my chances with strangers!"

In a flash she's gone. Out and around him in a wide circle, out the front door, down the street. He strides after her but stops at the porch, watching her go.

She needs some time alone, and so does he.

Billy Hargrove might be an asshole, but he knows a long road when he sees one.

 

They hobble along with the new rules for about a month, mostly half assing things. She comes in at 1045, and it's pissing him off but he pretends he doesn't notice. Smoking is an ongoing argument. She lights them up, he puts them out or smokes them himself, giving her a shit eating grin all the while.

He doesn't ask about her grades, and he starts packing a lunch. He's going for blissful ignorance on the school situation.

Eventually, he goes out to the bar again, and this time Harrington finds him.

"Look what the cat dragged in." the familiar voice says, settling in next to him.

Billy sighs. Rolls his eyes. Waits for Harrington's next move.

"Hey man," is what comes, "sorry about your parents."

He stiffens. This isn't what he expected.

He knows only one of them should be apologizing here, and it's definitely not Harrington.

He nods, curt.

"How's Maxine?"

This earns a bitter laugh, bubbling up from his gut.

"She's a royal pain in the ass." He replies, succinctly.

Now it's Harrington's turn to laugh. "Some things never change, huh?"

They drink their beers in silence, and Billy leaves right after.

Maybe someday he'll apologize for trying to kill Steve. The little voice certainly thinks he should, but he's not exactly on speaking terms with the voice right now. That little fucking voice is what got him doing permanent big brother duty for the next 2.5 years, after all, and he's not feeling too charitable about that at the moment.

When he gets home, she's not there. It's midnight, school night, no Max.

Window is wide open. That goddamn window has caused him enough trouble to last a lifetime, and now he's pissed. Not yelling pissed, but calm pissed. Low voice and few words and brain not working right kind of pissed.

He waits on her bed, dozes intermittently. Thinks about killing her.

He wakes with a start when she bangs her head on the sash coming in, and he's up lightening fast.

"The fuck have you been?"

She at least has the decency to look guilty, for a split second. She reeks of cigarette smoke and beer.

"The fuck have YOU been?" She asks, eyes narrowed, face red. "Didn't see you sitting around reading the Bible tonight, either!"

"Yeah, we are not on the same level here."

"Why?" She sneers, "Because you're some kind of authority now, psycho?"

"Don't call me that."

His voice is deadly quiet.

"Some piece of paper does not mean you own me, Billy!"

"I'm trying to help you." He says, as evenly as possible, trying to keep the red out of his vision because hell if he doesn't hate to be called psycho.

"Please. Like you give a shit about me. Like you EVER have."

Max is swaying in front of him now. He makes to push her onto the bed before she passes out on the floor, but his hand flies out too fast, because he's pissed off so of course it does.

She flinches; hard, whole body type flinch. He swears to god for a split second time stops, and he thinks his guts are on fire.

"I'm not Dad." He says.

His voice is flat, the fight just drained right out of him.

And all of a sudden something in Max has jumped a circuit. She's on him, she's screaming and punching and calling him every name in the proverbial book and he's doing everything, literally everything in his power not to slap the absolute shit out of her because that is an instinct so old he can't even remember it's formation --

--so he just grabs her and hangs on and the next thing he knows she is sobbing so hard her whole body shakes and he's hanging on to her for defensive purposes, but hanging on none the less, and the goddamn little voice is crowing triumphantly in the back of his head.

When it's over, she promptly pukes down the front of his shirt (thank God he buttoned it for once), and passes out on him.

 

Max feels like walking death.

She sits at the kitchen table and looks at Billy, who is giving her a hard stare, in return.

She remembers breaking down last night, but sometimes.....despite her best intentions, she has become an asshole, too. Just like him. She'd rather pretend it didn't happen. She isn't ready to go there yet, and probably won't ever be, truth be known, so she's sitting on autopilot and waiting.

He grounds her for two weeks, because he's snuck enough girls (and a couple boys, shut the fuck up little voice) out of enough bedroom windows to know how normal people handle this shit, and she doesn't say a word. Not even an eye roll. She's not committing to anything, but she's not fighting it, either. If she gives an inch, her emotions might take a mile.

"Got it?" He says, when she doesn't respond.

She studies him; remembering that tone and that posture from what seems like a million years ago. Anyone who doesn't know him might think he's perfectly relaxed, but that tone actually means quite the opposite. It means he's not fucking around.

But the way he says "Got it?" reminds her of Neil, and it rankles.

"Three weeks?" He asks, when she still hasn't replied, and he's the picture of politeness, smiling like the damn Cheshire cat. He takes out a cigarette and lights it up right in front of her.

"2 Weeks," She mutters. "Got it."

She gets up and goes back to bed. Prays for death.

She has a dream about Lucas, she's talking to him on top of the old school bus. She's saying she doesn't want to be like Billy, but when she looks down those are his hands.

She wakes up in a cold sweat.

 

Two weeks last about 3 days and she can't explain why, really, even in her own head. Maybe some part of her thinks having Billy back in a position of authority over her will never end well. It's only a matter of time before he loses it and does something stupid, or chucks her ass into the system and walks away.

Or both.

In any case, she'd much rather cut to the chase than waste her time and optimism (HA. HA.) on a guaranteed heartache down the road.

Of course, she's not consciously thinking this when she walks to the quarry after school and stays there, shivering and stubborn, until well after the stars are out. She's not thinking it when Hopper shows up, either. She's just thinking she hates her life, wishes she could turn the clock back and tell her mom not to marry Neil Hargrove.

And then she's just thinking about her mom.

"Hey, kid."

Max rolls her eyes. Every kid is "kid" to Hopper. Even his own.

"Your brother is....concerned."

"Stepbrother," she corrects, "and bullshit. He's probably thinking up a dozen ways to kill me as we speak."

"Yeah, well" Hopper chuckles, "the two kind of go hand in hand you know?"

She kicks a rock and doesn't say anything.

"You gonna take me home?"

Long pause, followed by, "You be safe there?"

Max considers the question and shrugs.

"Safer than I was six months ago."

 

Twenty minutes later Hopper finds himself wedged into a worn kitchen chair at Casa de Hargrove, listening to these two siblings, because no matter how many times they correct him, he knows these kids have seen enough shit together to be good as blood, try to verbally eviscerate each other.

It's all good, really, because he's thinking of a plan while they go at it like roosters in a cock fight, and when he's ready, he stands up, puts his hands out, and barks an authoritative "SIT."

Billy stands there, eyeing him with dark, glittering eyes. Hop runs a hand over his face and gestures widely to a chair. He can tell the kid has grown in the year out from under his father's fist, but still has a hell of a long way to go.

"I'm good." says Billy.

Joyce's voice drifts through his mind, telling him to choose his battles when it comes to kids. He figures twenty year old punks apply, in this case.

"Suit yourself. I've got a couple things I want to say and I want you both," he pauses, levels a look at each of them in turn, "to shut up and listen."

Hopper surveys the kids in front of him. Both have short hair, now. Both are giving him the exact same look. He doesn't understand why they can't see it. Why they don't get that they're fighting the same enemy.

He clears his throat.

"OK. First." He points at Max, "I hate to break it to you, but your brother--"

"Step brother."

"-- is right about social services. That social worker, I've talked to her and she feels the same way I do."

"And how's that?" Asks Bill, a flicker behind shuttered eyes.

"That a 20 year old delinquent in charge of a 15 year old delinquent is bound to fail."

The Bobsy twins share side long glances. Hmm. Hopper files that under "useful information". If authority wants them to fail they might just kill themselves trying to succeed.

He takes it one step further.

"I'm not saying anything groundbreaking here," he continues, face full of earnest casual, "hell, I'm sure your Dad woulda felt the same way."

"Fuck you." Says Bill, but it's soft. It's a thinking curse.

Wheels are turning.

"Yeah." Hopper clears his throat, lets this second disrespect pass. "Anyway, my point is that social worker is WAITING for you to fail. And those rules," he pauses, catching Max's eye, "they're nothing compared to the rules you'd have in a county run group home."

She's staring at the table now, and Billy is staring at him. Hopper knows the kid isn't dumb, and he's not crazy either. Fact is, he's razor sharp and he rarely misses a thing. He sees what Hopper just did, and he's evaluating. Hopefully he's putting it in his bag of parenting tricks, thinks the Chief, because Lord knows his bag's pretty empty at the moment.

Hopper softens his voice. "Don't think of them as Bill's rules," he says to Maxine, "think of them as a contract you have with the county. You break them too many times, I get called to go find you too many times....and that social worker's gonna smell blood in the water." He pauses. Lets that sink in. "Look, I'm gonna be straight with you, she's just trying to do her job. She's trying to look out for you. Maybe a group home is what you need."

He glances up to see an angry flash of blue. He knows the way abusive parents use the threat of the system to their own end and he thinks it sucks. But at the moment, he's got bigger fish to fry. The fact of the matter is, if Maxine goes in the system, she will most likely hit the streets soon after.

That, is a scenario Chief Hopper would rather avoid.

"You say you want to stay here," he says, "that's the price."

He clears his throat, takes a breath.

"Second," he continues, pointing at the boy while he has his attention, "don't you let me ever, EVER, hear that things are getting physical."

Billy snorts. "Tell her that."

"I'm telling BOTH of you," he says, using a combination of Dad voice and cop voice that he hopes will drive the point home. "But you're bigger than her, and it's no secret your self control is shit."

"I'm not my father."

"Yeah? Well, Harrington's face said different a couple years ago." Hopper replies, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. "If you've got things reigned in now, I can respect that, but you're gonna have to prove it first. Here's your chance."

They stare at each other. Max doesn't say a word.

"I'll be fine." Bill says, at length, tone a clear indication that this particular topic has a giant "do not enter" sign on it.

Hopper shrugs; he's made his point. It's hard to learn restraint when nobody's ever shown you any, but the kid needs to learn on the job now, and fast.

"Third," he says, "you both need to start thinking hard about who you are really pissed at, and why."

Two sets of startled eyes jerk in his direction before identical shades of indifference are put back in place.

"Yeah. I'm sorry, I said it. Engage your brains, work some shit out, have an actual honest conversation. Knock off the tough guy routines and communicate." They are both looking at him like murder now but he's not particularly bothered. "You're both mad at your parents. You're both pissed off at how damaged you are. You know what? Too bad. They thought you were fuck ups, so prove 'em wrong. Put in the work; say the hard stuff.....bottom line you either get your shit together or this isn't gonna work."

Nobody says anything, so he gets out of the chair, jams his hat on his head, and sees himself out the back door.

Let them chew on that one a while.

 

Billy Hargrove knows he's an asshole, but right now he's still so pissed at Max that he can't even see straight, and the Chief's words are zinging around his skull like bullets in a barrel, so when she looks at him, he says "Clock starts over. Two weeks."

And he walks away. He doesn't speak to her for 3 days, because he doesn't know where to begin; because he thinks if he shows her any weakness she'll take it and run.

Because he's confused as fuck.

But she stays home. Comes right in after school. Does her homework. Still smoking, but he figures there's only so much hypocrisy he can dish out at a time, and she at least has the decency to hide it, so he lets that one go.

On the third day she makes breakfast. Good breakfast too, not just half warm leftovers or burnt toast. Scrambled eggs. Some bacon Susan probably bought months ago, dredged up from the depths of the freezer.

Coffee.

She sets him a plate, so he sits, cautiously. Looks at her. She has bed head, red hair hanging in her eyes.

"What's this about?" he asks, voice rusty and strange to his own ears.

She shrugs. "Been thinking about what Hopper said."

He nods. Takes a bite.

"Me too."

Max looks at him then and for one second of sheer panic, he thinks she's going to cry.

"Sorry." She says.

He swallows, contemplates what the little voice is telling him to do, and blurts out, "Me too."

They eat breakfast. They both know what just happened is huge.

They're both determined not to think about it.

 

Things work for a few months. They don't get any insurance money, because Dad and Susan committed suicide, but Max does get social security and Billy hasn't managed to piss off his new boss, yet.

They are getting by well enough that they take a quick road trip back to California. They need to get Billy's stuff out of that apartment, if the landlord hasn't already chucked it. So, they load up his meager possessions in the middle of the night and he skips out on the back rent.

They aren't doing that well with the money.

He lets Max play some of her shitty music on the road, and he doesn't even yell when his tiny, black and white TV slips from her fingers and tumbles down the stairs. They drive to her Dad's old house and sit in the car, staring at it. They're both thinking about the garage back in Hawkins; the one they avoid like the plague, but neither says it.

He pats her head when she tears up.

She says THANK YOU.

 

A month later, she steals his car and leaves town.

Billy is so fucking mad, he feels like any headway they made just went out the window.

He feels like the Chief is a moron.

He feels like Max may be beyond reason and he seriously just wants to beat her ass to make a point.

He feels like his dad must have thought the same thing.

He realizes what he's thinking, and calls Hopper for help.

 

Chief pulls her over about twelve miles out of town, and he's not amused.

"You're lucky it was me and not someone else." he says.

"It's like you WANT to fail at this." he says.

"Call me if your brother loses his shit too much." he says, softer. "He might be an asshole, but he's trying."

 

Max is sitting on the couch and Billy is, in fact, losing his shit. He's thrown the phone and punched the wall and he's just about paced a hole in the stretch of floor in front of her -- but he hasn't touched her and he's learned enough to know that doesn't mean he deserves an award. He hasn't even called her any names except UNGRATEFUL BRAT and damned if she didn't at least deserve it.

Finally he calms down enough to ask, "The fuck were you thinking?"

She doesn't have an answer and somehow that's worse.

He loses it all over again, tells her to get out. He's right in her face and that's too close.

She's on her feet.

"Go Max! Stay Max! Sit Max!"

He levels a murderous look at her.

"If I have to look at you another second I can't be responsible for what I might do."

 

She walks to the quarry, and it starts to rain.

Perfect.

 

She knows Billy's coming before she sees the car. She can hear it.

He grinds to a halt on the road below where she's sitting.

"Get in."

"I thought you didn't want to look at me."

"Maxine," he says, voice level, "get in the fucking car right now or I'll call Hopper."

She doesn't want to deal with that again so soon. Can't face more of the Chief's disappointment.

The car is warm and dry, and Billy is staring straight ahead, jaw clenched. After a few miles, he pulls over, and she thinks "This is it, he's finally going to kill me."

But he doesn't.

He knows he's running out of options with Maxine. He won't do things the way his father did, and he can't go back to doing things the way he did before. Not after realizing how much damage it did.

"Explain yourself." he says, trying to sound neutral.

Max is looking at him. She doesn't seem to know where to begin and that is a sensation so intimately familiar that he sighs, and says, more out of desperation than anything: "Fine. I'll start."

She scoffs.

"Shut up and listen, smart ass, because you're on my last fucking nerve."

He glares at her. She glares back.

He counts to ten in his mind. Then twenty.

Takes a deep breath.

"You don't really know why you took off with the car, right? You were feeling like things were going too good, like things can't ever stay good and you'd rather be the one to fuck them up because at least way you're in control."

He glances at Max. She's staring hard at her hands in her lap. She doesn't say anything.

"Look, I get it." He pauses. No sign of life from her, so he plows ahead. "I mean, I'm the world's biggest fuck up and I have a track record of only being nice to people when I need something. You don't think you can trust me."

She keeps looking at her hands. He's waiting for a 'fuck off' but what he gets is a nod, barely perceptible, but there.

"Can't really say I blame you." He mutters. He's not sure if she hears but then there's movement in his periphery, and he can feel her eyes. It makes him vulnerable; makes him want to run, want to push her out of the car; go for cigarettes and never come back....anything.

But.

At some point he's started wanting this to work.

He's thinking if she ever finds that out, he's screwed.

He shakes his head. The little voice is telling him KEEP GOING. It's drowning out the other parts.

It's time to own some shit.

"I had this fucked up idea" he begins, lighting a smoke and taking a long drag, "that I was protecting you from Dad by keeping you away from Lucas Sinclair. And don't get me wrong, Max," he glances at her, guarded eyes in a hard face, "I was protecting my own ass, too. You know how he was."

She gives him one nod, and he wants to laugh, even though it's not funny. She's not giving an inch, and he knows right where she learned it. His chicken came home to roost, all right.

"Even though you had no clue that was what I was up to, in my head....fuck if I know......it was like I was trying to keep you from driving off a cliff and you just kept hitting the gas."

He steals a side long glance, and she takes the opportunity to pluck the cigarette right out of his hand. She takes a deep drag; doesn't even have the courtesy to look sheepish.

"I didn't know," she mutters, sounding defensive, "you coulda just told me what your deal was."

Billy bites back the urge to snap. "In case you haven't noticed," he replies, as evenly as possible, "the way I grew up didn't exactly teach me the worlds best communication skills."

She hands his cigarette back, wordless.

"I know," he says, "it's a shitty excuse."

"Yeah," She lifts a shoulder, "it is. But it's the truth. And I get it. Maybe nobody else would, but I do."

He studies her in the low light of the dash, lets a couple minutes drift by.

 "That's the same way I lost my friends." She says, at last.

"Friends are dangerous," he agrees, "they ask questions you can't answer. They think they're helping but they're only making shit worse."

She nods. "Lucas thought he could fix things, right?" She catches his eye, and they exchange sardonic glances. "In his family, somethings wrong and they have a family meeting and work it out."

Billy scoffs. "And Dad thought white skin made him better."

"Yeah," she pauses, "but the thing was, he didn't know any other way. He thought, like, if we talked about it enough, or made a plan to talk to Neil, or called Hopper--"

She lets that dangle, and it's fine, Billy knows this path by heart; doesn't need a compass.

He sighs.

"When I beat up Steve Harrington, part of it was because I hated how good he was. No problems at home. King of the high school." He taps the steering wheel like he's ticking offenses off a list. "Drove a BMW. Lived in a nice house. People respected him. And I know what I did to him was wrong. I do. But you know.....when you're life's a mess and someone like that comes along--"

"I know."

"And Lucas was just--"

"Neil?"

He blows out a stream of smoke. Nods. "That and I needed someone to hate. I can't put it all on Dad."

Max seems to still in his peripheral vision; solidify.

"I know it wasn't just Dad." he repeats. "I told myself I was trying to help but c'mon....I mean I knew I was taking my shit out on you, too. You get pushed around all your life it starts to feel good when you get to be the one doing the pushing. Not gonna lie." He pauses, takes a deep breath and muses about how fucking hard honesty is.  "After you drugged me, I twisted it around in my head like you were an ungrateful bitch who wouldn't take my advice. Like I was the victim."

"You coulda killed Steve." She says, but her voice is flat, non-accusatory.

"I know." He replies. "I think I should thank you for knocking my ass out or I'd probably be somebody's prison bitch right about now."

"Your Dad used me as an excuse to control you," she says, slowly, "and you used him as an excuse to control me. I get that. But the thing is, he was a grown up. You were just a kid."

Billy's throat closes up and he just sits there trying to breathe, because he can feel the way she's looking at him and fuck if he can take empathy from her. Fuck if he can.

"I can see how you felt like you hated everyone." She looks in her lap now, mutters, "How you could hate me."

"Max--"

She changes the subject so fast it feels like violence, wiping angrily at her eyes, "I hated people with their fucking sympathy, more than anything."

"I'm sorry."

She turns her head to look out the window, into the darkness. Mutters something he didn't even realize he needed to hear: "It's ok."

The only sounds now are the whirring of the heater, but he doesn't push it. He figures they don't need to do all their soul searching in one night. He's not going anywhere.

After a few minutes, he clears his throat. "Guess Jim Hopper never gave up."

"No kidding," she looks at him with an eye roll, "I would have been throwing us a bon voyage party the second I found the bodies."

 

 Billy Hargrove knows he's an asshole. But he doesn't so much revel in it, anymore.

The next day, he gives Max a very animated lecture about how she's not allowed to touch his car for at least another year. And then he lets it go.

Because Max is an asshole sometimes, too. And he gets that.

 

Over the next few months, he starts to notice signs of the nerd patrol. There's a note in the laundry, carefully folded up like a football, with her name on it.

Next comes a friendship bracelet of the type he's seen Jane Hopper making.

Eventually, a walkie shows up in her bedroom again.

Soon after, the pasty little Beyers kid is on their doorstep, his mom waving hesitantly from the car.

Mike and the weird kid, the one with the fake teeth -- they are next.

Lucas Sinclair is last. He's a tough kid, and Billy's surprised to discover he actually likes him best. He catches him on the back porch one day, and they have a man to man.

Billy apologizes for real.

They've rebuilt a lot of bridges, but the one that bothers him most is still in embers.

So, one night while Max is at a sleepover, probably smoking the cigarettes she stole from his top drawer and drinking beers snuck from the Chief's fridge, he heads to the bar.

By the grace of some God he gave up on long ago, Harrington is there, with an empty seat beside him.

Billy sits down.

Brown eyes flicker in his direction.

"Hargrove."

"Harrington." He says. There must be something in his voice, because Steve turns around fully, and looks. Billy spits it out: "Sorry, man. About the thing," He sucks at apologizing, and he knows it. "you know, in '84. What I did -- it wasn't right. None of it."

They stare at each other a few seconds and then Steve shoulder checks him lightly and says, "Just buy me a beer, asshole. We're all good."

Chapter Text

One year on from Susan and Neil's death finds Billy and Max eating pizza in an unfamiliar living room, surrounded by half unpacked boxes; Friday the 13th blaring out of the TV.

They've recently moved, that "one month plus security thing" was brutal on his wallet, thank you very much, into a house that's actually in worse shape than the old one.....but at least it doesn't have death and bad memories lurking down every corridor. And since that was the point, neither really cares that the woodwork doesn't match, the floorboards creak, and the toilet doesn't flush right.

 OK, fine, the toilet thing is gross, but whatever.

At this point in his life, Billy Hargrove is regularly cursing "the little voice". But he's also listening to it more. It's a weird, weird place to be.

He cuts his eyes to Max. She's newly 16 and ranking about a 50 on a scale of 1 to 10 for teen girl moodiness, although she seems pretty satisfied by watching Jason Voorhees in his ski mask, slashing people up, at the moment. In an attempt to spend the anniversary as quietly as possible, he'd sprung for the cheese and pepperoni, and even let her have a beer she doesn't have to sneak.

"Don't tell anyone." He'd said, holding the can just out of reach.

"No shit, Sherlock."

"Max," he says, giving her a hard look, "for real. Not even your nerdy friends. Maria turned out pretty cool, for a social worker, but shit gets around."

And Maria actually is pretty cool, despite her earlier doubts about the situation. At some point, she seemed to have decided they are under dogs worth rooting for, and now spends an hour every other week mediating while they loudly air grievances in her depressing, county issued office space.

Max salutes, and he dismisses the urge to smack her; settles for an eye roll.

See? Progress. He's got it comin' out the ass.

They are 30 minutes into the movie when someone knocks on the door and Max jumps so high she spills her beer all over the couch.

"What the--" he's up and glaring down at her through heavy lids, "did you invite your little shitbird friends over or something? I told you I don't want a fuss."

"No!" she says. "Who invites people over to celebrate their parents dying?"

"We are not celebr--" he's interrupted by more knocking, changes track, "--that is now my beer." He plucks the dripping can out of her hand and sets it on the coffee table, before heading for the door and giving it an irritated yank.

What he finds at the door momentarily derails his attitude. Not only is the nerd patrol on his front porch, they've brought company.

"Harrington?"

"Hey, buddy," says Steve, like they're life long best friends and not two guys who make awkward small talk at the bar on occasion, "kids said they wanted to come see Max tonight."

Billy zones in on Lucas. Ironically, this is the one he has the best relationship with. Lucas is tough, logical, and he tells the truth even when it sucks -- all traits he can vastly appreciate. "What the hell?"

"Figured she could use some company." Lucas replies, deftly weaseling himself under Billy's arm and coming inside. "Mad Max! What's up?"

And just like that, they have guests. Steve stands on the doorstep, looking uncertain.

"Wanna come in, Mother Hen?" asks Billy, smirking.

"No, yeah. I was just, uh," his hand shoots to the back of his neck, "you know, I mean it's shitty out."

Billy steps onto the porch and takes an exaggerated look around. It is raining, but not hard. Not enough that Steve really needs to act as chauffer, because, let's face it, those kids aren't made of sugar. Nobody's in danger of melting. "Yeah, man. All this....water. It's deadly."

"Listen," Steve narrows his eyes, "they might be able to drive, but they don't have cars yet. They needs rides sometimes. Don't be a dick."

"Dick is my default." He shrugs, smirking some more. Then, right when he can see Harrington's clearly flustered and turning to leave, he says, "Nah, c'mon, I'm just bustin' your balls. I'm not really in any position to talk. I still have eighteen more months of permanent babysitter duty. Come in and have a beer."

"Counting down the months, huh?" Steve stands there with that ridiculous hair, regarding him, then steps back onto the porch. "Yeah, ok." He says, "Just one though. Driving."

Driving. God, he's still such a golden boy, thinks Billy, as they walk back through the door. The quiet of the living room has turned into something like a rock concert in their absence. Little Byers is in his kitchen making popcorn he wasn't even aware he owned, Lucas is sitting way too close to Max, and Dustin is already bickering with Mike over some trivial, nobody-else-on-earth-gives-a-rats-ass-about detail from the movie.

He arches an eyebrow at Max, and she snuggles an inch closer. She pops a kiss onto Lucas' cheek and sticks her tongue out.

Steve has not missed this interaction, because of course he hasn't. "Eighteen months, huh?" He practically purrs with self satisfaction, "Makes sense now."

There's popcorn all over the floor, the place smells vaguely of teen hormones and farts, and they're half way through the movie when someone slips. It's not a big slip, but Billy is sharp and looks like a brainless pretty boy, so he's pretty regularly underestimated, and this is no exception. Some blonde bimbo in the movie bites the dust, in full bloody regalia, when Dustin snickers, pops his thumb at the screen and says, "She shoulda had a nail bat!"

The room seems to still, only for a second, but long enough for Billy to notice the furtive glances sent in his direction. Long enough for him to realize, way down in his gut, that the something more he always felt under the surface of this shit stain town was not, in fact, in his imagination.

There's a loud knock at the door then, making everyone jump, and Max makes a suspiciously hasty exit to answer it.

"Hey, Red."

It's the chief, whom, at some point in the past year has traded kid, for red, with regard to Max. Billy figures he's probably dropping his spooky, curly headed daughter off, because sure, why the hell not? Wasn't half of Hawkins High already here?

He and Hopper exchange nods and he sees the guy do a quick visual cruise around the living room to take in the lay of the land before he leaves his precious cargo behind.

"One hour." he grumbles to the girl, before pulling her into a tight, one arm hug and letting her wiggle away. Then he leaves, quick as he came.

 "Maxine." says Billy, and fuck him but it's sharp. He can't help it. Someone has obviously planned this shit, despite his express wishes for a quiet, anonymous night; his stepsister is sitting way too close to a person with ownership of a dick, and now the nail bat is burrowing under his skin like a tick with a bad attitude. "Kitchen."

"But--"

"Now."

He goes in the kitchen and waits. After a minute or so, here she comes, looking equal parts embarrassed and nervous.

"Can you not treat me like a 3 year old in front of my friends?"

"How did all these kids know to come here tonight? And Hopper?"  

Max looks at him like he's crazy. "I don't -- they know it's the one year anniversary, ok? They're not dumb. They probably did it to, you know," she slows her speed so it seems like she's addressing a toddler,"be nice? See, it's a thing some people--"

 "Don't."

She sighs. "What's the big deal? Plans change. Besides, I don't know about you, but this is making me feel better than I have all week."

He studies her, and she studies him back. "The fuck with the nail bat, Max? You think I don't remember that?"

"Dustin." She mutters venomously. "Big mouth."

"Answer me." He grinds out, "There's something up around here, and I've been patient. I put my ass on the line for you this year, and you know I hate secrets."

Lies, he means, and they both know it. He has a thing about lying, and as far as he's concerned dishonesty and secrecy are back door cousins.

"Look," she says, shifting feet uncomfortably, "I can't make that decision on my own. OK? It's not that simple."

"No." He says, voice flat, "Not OK."

She sighs. "Give me a few days to work on them--"

"Now. Or I go throw everyone out and if you think you're embarrassed now...."

"Billy."

"Max?"

Steve Harrington pops his head in the kitchen. "Everything ok?"

Max turns to him, hands in the air. "He wants to know." she says, sounding exasperated and dangerously close to tears.

As it sinks in that Steve Fucking Harrington knows about a situation that he's not allowed to, Billy finds his blood pressure shooting from angry  to over it. He makes for the living room but she grabs the back of his tee shirt.

"OK!" she squeaks, "I'll tell you! Please! Just don't be weird! I finally have my friends back!"

Steve watches them scuffle, heaves a sigh, and heads for the living room, calling for quiet as he goes. Gets it pretty quickly, too, Billy notes with irritation. Way faster than he, himself, could have.

"We have to tell Billy." He says, at last, when the eyes are on him. The silence explodes into a chorus of outrage. Even with Max tugging a hole into the back of his shirt, Billy can pick out a variety of denials ranging from no way to you fucking crazy, Steve?

The only one who doesn't say anything is Lucas. He glances toward the situation in the kitchen, clears his throat, and loudly says, "OK."

Everyone stops to stare.

"That's just because you wanna get in Max's pants!" Mike Wheeler blurts out, causing Billy to casually wonder what size casket the kid will require.  

At that, Max lets go of his shirt and practically flies into the living room. "HEY!" she bellows, "NOT COOL."

Lucas rolls his eyes. He looks from Max to Steve to Billy, seems to steel his resolve.

"He's changed a lot in the last couple years," he says, "and I should know. I know Max better than anyone. I'm her best friend. She said he's trying to be a better person, and if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for me."

Billy's face feels like it's on fire upon hearing those words. He realizes, in an avalanche of shame, that threatening to embarrass her in order to get his way was a dick move. Abuse of power, the little voice hisses at him, chip off the old block.

She doesn't look at him, but Steve does. He seems to catch his moment of vulnerability, and lifts a shoulder.

"Yes." says Hopper's kid in a clear, succinct voice, before giving Mike an elbow and admonishing, "Not nice, what you said."

Steve clears his throat. "Well, that's 4 to 2 for telling him."

 "I never said how I would vote." Max's head jerks up, face twisted.

"Even without your vote, we'd still win." Steve reminds her, gently.

She glares at Billy through the doorway.

"Max gets the final word."  he says. They exchange a few seconds of sibling-not-sibling telepathy that mostly involves sorry for pulling a Neil on you, on his part, and a big old fuck off, on hers.

She huffs audibly, but mutters a begrudging, "Fine."

So begins the education of Billy Hargrove. They talk over themselves a lot, and there's a fair amount of bickering (because, he notes, they can't do anything without bickering) but eventually they lay things out, right up to his balls almost becoming pincushions.

He ignores the intense level of joy that part seems to bring them.

When they're done, he notices that Jane Hopper hasn't said a word. In fact, if he's honest, she's looking pretty annoyed. "You guys left some parts out." she says.

"He doesn't deserve that much trust." Mike says, eyeing Billy with blatant animosity, "And Hopper will kill you."

She gives Mike a soft look, then promptly ignores him.

"My Papa was a bad man," she begins, matter of factly, "just like yours."

 

 

 

That night, Steve drives all the little shits home, and then he comes back.

Max is asleep on the couch and Billy is sitting there feeling disgruntled that she's wearing his Megadeath tee shirt without permission, and trying to process what just happened.

"Life was so much easier when I didn't give a shit about anything." he mutters to himself.

That time never really existed, dumbass, says the little voice, but he doesn't have time to reflect on the honesty in that statement, because the front door pops open and here comes Mr. Hair Club For Men. He waltzes right toward the kitchen, grabs two beers out of the fridge, and parks his (mighty fine, but who's looking, certainly not Billy) ass in the recliner.  

He can't believe the balls on this guy.

"You fucking mind?" he demands.

"Nah," says Steve, nonplussed, "not really." He holds out a cold one like it's some kind of gift and not beer Billy actually purchased with his own damn money. "You feel better or worse now that you know?"

Billy stares at him. Tries to be pissed off, but it's been a long day.

"Things make a hell of a lot more sense," he admits, grudgingly, "but that's all I got for right now."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, Harrington. What's your deal? Why are you here?"

Brown eyes meet blue. Billy breaks first, pretends to stare at his beer. It unnerves him. He never breaks first, and he most decidedly does not want to think about why he did in this case.

"I came back because they don't know the whole story. There's more you need to know, but it's a secret."

He pointedly glances at Max.

Billy rolls his eyes, calls Steve a drama queen under his breath, and gives her ankle a healthy shake. When she doesn't stir, he climbs reluctantly out of the chair and heaves her off the couch in a movement that looks far easier than it is -- Max is fit but solid.  He deposits her onto her unmade bed and tosses a ratty afghan over her on his way to the door.

Steve is regarding him thoughtfully, but he can sense the amusement around the edges, and it makes him defensive.

"She's still a bitch." He mutters, but it lacks the venom it once had and all Steve gives him in response is an arched eyebrow. "Fine," he grumbles, "what's the big story?"

Steve takes a long drink of beer, sets the half empty can on the coffee table, and says, "There are still monsters out in the woods. They didn't all go back in. Some of them," he pauses, thinking, "I don't know, they mutated or something. Hopper can explain it better than I can but, when they couldn't go home, they sort of....adapted."

This new revelation is met with silence, followed by, "Fuck you, Harringon. Very funny. Now go home. I've had a long day."

"Bill," he says, and his voice is dead serious, "you think I voted for telling you out of the kindness of my heart? Huh? Think about it. If anyone in this town knows how hard you can swing, it's me."

Oh buddy, thinks Billy, you have positively no idea how hard I swing. But then he thinks about the prospect of otherworldly monsters in the woods of Hawkins; of red headed stepsisters wielding nail studded baseball bats; of Steve's face under his fists.

"What's your point?" He asks, and if he sounds a little sad then, well, fuck it. He is sad.

"I've been trying to think of a way to tell you for months now." Steve says, then nods toward Max's bedroom, "And nobody wants them to know, either, because it's too damn dangerous now. They're just kids."

Billy chews on that a minute. "By my calculations they're the same age you and Jon and Nancy were when little Byers went missing."

"Will. And yeah. But they weren't as dangerous then. I mean, for one thing, Jane used to be able to sense them but.....now they seem to be slipping right under her radar."

"Adapting." Billy mutters thoughtfully. "So you guys are trying to kill them on your own?"

"Yeah, but there aren't enough of us since Jon and Nance left for school. Now, it's only me, Hopper, and Joyce."

"So that's what you want? To recruit me to this monster killing dream team of yours?"

"Would you want Max out there instead?" Steve retorts. His answer arrives in the form of a glare that implies painful death and a shallow grave. He shrugs. "It's a good stress reliever, seems to me you could use that."

"Maybe."

Steve considers the tight, defensive tone that means he's clearly touched a nerve. He takes a moment to marvel at what a year of legal guardianship has done to Billy Hargrove, former King of looking out for number one, now worrying about Max's safety and trying to reign in that temper.

"Hey," he says, "if it helps, you're doing better than anyone expected."

"Oh yeah," Billy drawls, "that's real nice of you, Harrington. I feel a shit-ton better now. Everybody had bets going, huh?"

"I lost twenty bucks." Steve replies, unashamed. "So, you in or what?"

Chapter Text

 

No less than 24 hours later, Billy finds himself sitting across from Chief Hopper, watching his eyebrows practically knit themselves into a sweater. He's torn between wanting to laugh his ass off and wanting to kick his step sister's for landing him here.

Hopper tosses a carefully rolled down paper bag across the desk and grimaces.

"Look," he says, "I paid for the uh," he offers up a vague wave of the hand at the offending package, "the stuff. And I talked him into not pressing charges. But she probably shouldn't go into the drugstore for a while," he clears his throat, avoids Billy's eyes, "or, uh, you know.....again. Ever."

Now he definitely wants to laugh. Hopper looks like he'd rather gouge his own eye out with a rusty screwdriver than have this conversation, and Billy doesn't get it. What is it with old guys? He's been with a lot of girls (a lot), is intimately familiar with the female reproductive system and, frankly, doesn't get what the big deal is. Girls bleed. It is what it is.

He spends a distracted moment thinking about the fact that every girl in Hawkins is now batting her eyelashes at him due to some weird thing chicks have about Mr. Moms, and how he's not interested in a single one of them.

Spends another 30 seconds thinking about Patrick Swayze rumbling on the big screen, then he shuts that shit right down

Hopper is looking at him like an irritated school teacher (a look he knows all too well) so he mutters a half hearted, "Sorry, what?"

"I said, for the record, I think Harrington made a big mistake telling you about what we do."

It takes Billy a second to realize what he's talking about, but once he does, it raises his hackles. He can't seem to earn this guys respect, and he shouldn't care, but he does.

He smirks. "Noted." He says, grabbing the offending package, "We done here?"

"Yeah." Hopper stares at him a second longer then, as if he suddenly remembers the real reason Billy is parked in his office, goes for the door with rapid enthusiasm. "Leave her some money now and then," he murmurs before shoving him out the door, "and don't be hard on her. I think she misses her mom."

Oh, sure, just leave some money around. That's a good one, thinks Billy.  He puts his head down, leaves the office, and tosses the bag into Max's lap, where she sits outside the door.

"C'mon," he grumbles, "let's go."

He doesn't say anything while they streak down the road toward home. It's not because he's pissed at Max, though he figures it doesn't hurt to make her sweat, considering she did just knock over a drug store. He's busy stewing over Hopper's lack of faith and Harrington's inexplicable abundance of it, unsure as to which disturbs him more.  He glances at her when they're almost at the driveway. She's staring out the window, arms knotted up like some game of cat's cradle gone wrong. 

Before the car is even in park, she peels out of there and goes directly to her room. He hears the all too familiar sound of her propping a chair under the knob and stops short outside the door.

This is, really, the last thing he needs right now.

"C'mon, Max."

"I don't want to talk about it." She replies succinctly. "I'd rather die."

He rolls his eyes. "That can be arranged.".

No response. He lights a cigarette, sits on the couch to smoke it, and thinks things over. Maxine is a sneaky little shit, and he lets a lot of things go (like his ever dwindling supply of cigarettes or the fact that she spends more time sucking face with Lucas behind the arcade than she does playing games in it) but this really kind of takes the cake. Maria would definitely say they have to talk about it.

On the other hand, the Chief is probably on to something about her missing Susan, and that is a topic he'd rather avoid.

In the end, he decides that getting busted by, not only the store manager, but also the Chief of police, for stealing tampons.....is probably one of the most mortifying things a 16 year old girl can go through.

He spends the evening watching TV, drinking beer, and smoking way too many cigarettes; tells himself he's definitely not staying home so Max won't be alone, even though he and the little voice both know that's a lie. Eventually, he heads to bed, where he spends a fitful night dreaming about pretty boys with big hair who want him to fight monsters and baseball bats studded with nails.

In the morning, he stumbles out, feeling distinctly un-rested, and reluctantly chooses coffee over beer, because he has to set a good fucking example these days. He digs some bargain basement bacon out of the fridge. Sometimes, dealing with Maxine is like dealing with a feral kitten. A constantly hungry feral kitten, he amends, because she can eat like a dude, a trait he'd find endlessly amusing if it weren't so brutal on his wallet.

It take approximately 12 minutes for the bacon to do it's thing. She comes shuffling out, looking miserable. Her eyes are swollen and her hair is-- "Jesus," he says, "you need a shower."

She sits down; glares at him. "Shut up."

Right. Might as well get this over with.

"Listen, I know you miss your mother--"

She's up out of the chair but he sticks a finger in her chest because fuck if he's going to go through getting her out of that bedroom again.

"--and I know you hate your mother, at the same time." He says. "I get that. I do. So, whatever. You don't want to talk about that with me, it's cool. Save it for Maria, if you want."

Max shoots him a skeptical glance, but she does sit back down.

That, my friends, is the power of bacon.

"You coulda just asked me for a few bucks," he says, "but since that's apparently not an option....I'll keep some money in my top dresser drawer for you. You know my top drawer, right? The one you think I don't know you steal cigarettes out of?" She studies her fingernails like one of them just grew a mustache and started quoting Shakespeare. "Yeah." he says, voice dripping with sarcasm, "Thought so."

She glances up then, and God she looks so miserable he almost kind of wishes they were huggers, because it looks like she really needs one. Maybe he can drive her over to the Byers house. Drop her off, pick her up in 10 minutes, freshly hugged.  

"Sorry." She mutters.

Billy laughs. He can't help it -- he's been holding that shit in for almost 24 hours now.

"Max," he says, "don't do it again. But....in this case? It was worth it just to see the look on Hopper's face."

 

 

Later that evening, the very same Jim Hopper has him pinned, nail bat resting uncomfortably on his chest, and he doesn't feel quite so much like laughing.

"If I was a demodog," he informs him, "I'd be eating your guts right now."

Billy pushes upward, letting the nails bite into his chest, forcing the Chief to move. He's got a gun powder burn in the crook of his right thumb, a sore shoulder from swinging that damn bat, and singed right eyebrow.

He's in no mood.

When he gets home, all he's thinking about it a long, hot shower, but Maxine is standing in the living room like an angry wife out of an old time cartoon -- all she's missing are the curlers and the rolling pin.

"We were supposed to do the 'drive and yell' tonight." She hurls at him. 'Drive and yell' is Maxine's charming nickname for their rather explosive driving lessons.

"Shit."

"Yeah, shit."

"I forgot."

"How am I ever going to get my license at this rate? Lucas and Mike already have--"

"I know." He goes to the kitchen. Makes a face at the pan of congealed mac and cheese sitting on the stove. "But you need more practice. You drive like a maniac."

"You taught me!"

"Yeah, Max, and I told you--"

"You told me I should drive better than you. And I shouldn't solve problems with my fists like you did. Or smoke. Like you do. And you tell me that doesn't make you a giant hypocritical asshole."

"I never said I wasn't a hypocrite. And I'm definitely an asshole." He says, head stuck in the fridge. "I just said you should try to be better. You really want to repeat all my dumb shit mistakes?"

She makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a 'fuck you' camouflaged in a cough, and storms off to her room.

Awesome.

"You know," he hollers at her back, "I let you off the hook today, you little felon! Why don't you cut me some slack?"

God, she's impossible. He takes one last look at what was passing for dinner, and crashes on the couch; daydreams about Steve Harrington dying a slow, painful death for making his life even more complicated.

Chapter Text

 

 

Once school starts again, things get easier in some ways, trickier in others. Max is always staying after (sometimes clubs, sometimes detention -- sometimes she says for a club but he knows it's really detention), or at the arcade (or behind it), or playing D&D with the nerd patrol. That's good, because if he's out doing the monster thing, she doesn't notice.

On the other hand, two of the kids have passed their driver's test and are officially licensed, which means they're harder to nail down. He can't just drop her off somewhere and expect her to stay put. Now that they're mobile, those little shits could show up anywhere, any time.

Luckily, Sinclair's parents won't let him drive with other kids in the car. Mike, on the other hand, is a wild card. His parents can't stand each other (he would know, having gone a few lukewarm rounds with Mrs. Wheeler) and so nobody really has the energy to worry what he's up to. He tries to buy some time by telling Max she's not allowed to ride with him until he's been on the road a few months, but, honestly? There's no guarantee she'll obey, and he's acutely aware of that fact.

At the moment, the kids are all crammed into Wheeler's basement, which smells like moth balls and puberty, in case you're wondering, and he's staked out behind a tree with the Chief of police.

Hopper is still less than inspired by his presence.

"I can't believe Harrington thinks this is a good idea." He says, again, and Billy doesn't bother to argue. Fact is, nobody's ever put this kind of faith in him before (Susan has, reminds the voice) and as much as the Chief's disgruntlement annoys him, it's also familiar; puts him on solid ground.

This is the first time he's going to actually see one of these monsters, and his neurons are firing in a way that he normally has to be pissed off for. It's.....an interesting sensation, but he doesn't have much time to examine it, because right at that moment something materializes behind the older man, seemingly out of thin air, and Joyce screams from her and Steve's spot across the clearing.

Hopper is fast, he's gotta give him that, but the thing is fast, too, and it has the element of surprise. He ducks just as sticky tentacles sweep the air where his head was only seconds before, and Billy gets a surge of adrenaline that makes him soar. He gets to the side of the thing; swings that bat with all the force of someone who hasn't been able to vent their rage in months, and screams with laughter.

The monster stumbles, turns and makes a motion that looks for all the world like it's sizing him up, then opens it's petal head and roars

Billy roars back.

"C'mon, mother fucker!"

Next thing he knows, he's flanked on both sides by Hopper, Steve, and Joyce, in full on mother bear mode. Steve and Hopper both fire at once, bringing it to it's.....knees? He figures they're a close approximation to knees, at least.

In a blink (before he's even decided if they're knees or not knees, really), Joyce is literally on the thing. She drives a long, sharp knife into the back of it's head. He knows from his training that the head is the best "kill spot" on these things, so he's not surprised when it falls to the ground. What does surprise him is the way she clamps onto the thing with her knees and rides it right down, before wiping the sweat off her brow with a grin, nonchalant as you please.

"One more down." She announces, triumphantly.

Billy's (thinking Joyce kind of turned him on there, but that's another story) bouncing on the balls of his feet, literally, wishing another one would come along because damn that felt good, when he notices Steve looking at him. There's something new on his face that wasn't there before.

He likes the way that looks, too.

"You're fast." He says.

"Yeah, well. I did learn one thing from Dear old Dad."

"Quick reflexes." says Hopper, sounding dark and knowing.

Billy nods; tries not to stare because the Chief of police is appraising  him, and for the first time since he's met him, he feels like he might not come up short.

He's itching to change the subject. "That felt good."

"It did." Agrees Joyce, with a smile that fades too fast. "But that was new, wasn't it?"

Steve nods, looking grim. "Was it me, or did it just....appear?"

"If they keep evolving at this rate...." says Hopper, but he doesn't finish. Doesn't need to. Even Billy, as the new guy, can see where this is heading. If those monsters can start popping up with no warning, materializing out of thin air, the four of them won't be enough.

All of Hawkins won't be enough.

 

 

 

Early snow, a week before Thanksgiving, finds Billy in the passenger seat of Steve's beamer, his brain weighed down with thoughts of the holidays. This is his and Max's second turkey day sans parents, and while they don't have to worry about one wrong word ending in a plate to the face.....store brand chicken nuggets the previous year had left a lot to be desired.

And then comes Christmas. Max picked up a job bussing tables at the diner, but he's not about to take that money for bills so it doesn't really change the fact that they're broke. He knows she doesn't expect much.

Still.

What kind of shitty guardian can't get their little ward of court at least something to open on Christmas day?

He's thinking about all this while Steve drives along at exactly the speed limit, a fact he would absolutely be riding his ass about if he weren't so distracted, when suddenly the brakes are slammed on and he damn near goes through the windshield. Thanks to Max's 'drive and yell' sessions, he's gotten into the habit of wearing a seat belt (he's found at least one thing to be a good role model about), and it's a good thing, too, or he'd be toast.

"The fuck, Harrington?" he snarls, but then his eye catches Steve's face; he follows his gaze.

There's something in the road.  Something....invisible and yet.....not.

They look at each other.

"Think we can take it alone?" asks Steve.

They've been hunting together, with Hopper and Joyce, for about 5 weeks now. They know each others strengths and weaknesses like instinct; can toss weapons back and forth without looking, and bicker like an old married couple (Joyce's words, to which Hopper had rolled his eyes, but nodded).

He doesn't have to ask twice.

Billy is out of the car in a flash; wants another shot of the ol' adrenaline. Likes, actually, loves that he has found a productive way to work out his boundless anger.

"Whoa, gunner," says Steve, "take this."

He tosses him the bat, saunters around the back of the car and gets a gun out of his trunk. Closes it with a nice, loud, satisfying bang that makes the swirling, slithering, snow covered shadow stop.

They hear the tell tale snuffle-huff of a curious demodog, but when it shifts, just as they are tensing for action, it's gone.

They notice the foot prints too late, a millisecond, in fact, before Billy goes down hard, on his back; blinding pain as invisible teeth sink into his calf.

The only thing he can think, the only most ironic fucking thing in the world he can think is, thank God for Neil.

Because, thanks to Neil, he has a high pain threshold and the ability to think while his body is screaming.

While Steve is screaming.

The thing starts dragging him down the slick, ice covered road with surprising speed and he swings, wild, pulling himself up like a sit up and swinging toward his own feet.

He nails himself in the thigh and nearly passes out.

There's the sharp pop, pop of gunfire, and the thing slows, it's bulk forming a shadowy outline again, under the snow.

It's distracted.

He lunges one more time with the bat, hard as he can. It connects and he's free -- scrambling on slippery blacktop, half crawling, half running, and he can feel the damn thing with it's hot breath on his back; realizes too late that he's dropped the bat.

Another pop rings out and he feels the earth tremble behind him. Everything slows down and he's knocked flat -- pinned to the frozen ground by a slimy, now fully visible beast that is resting it's ugly mug on his chest.

Dead.

"Christ, Hargrove." Yells Steve, slipping and sliding toward him, "You ok?"

"You fucking think I'm ok?" he growls, hating the feeling of being pinned; the pain of his injuries quickly filling the spots left by his fading adrenaline.

Steve doesn't bother pushing the thing off him; goes right to the leg, instead. He feels his pant leg pushing up, hears the all too familiar sound of a belt being pulled quickly through loops, and feels it go around his leg, high above the wound.

He throws his head back against the ice, immediately regrets it, and wishes for a smoke.

"God you're such a fucking boy scout."

"Shut up asshole, where else are you hurt?"

"My thigh," says Billy, "and I know you'd love to get my pants off but--"

That particular train of thought is interrupted by the sound of wheels crunching to a stop beside them, doors slamming, and Hopper's size twelves coming to rest by his head.

"What the hell were you guys thinking?" He doesn't even try not to yell, is angry enough to pull the monster off Billy's chest by himself. "I ought to beat the shit out of both of you! You know how hard it is to take one of these down with four of us, why would you even--" he stops short, glares at Billy, "you reckless son of a bitch!"

"It was my idea." Steve says, "We were on our way to meet you guys and we almost hit it."

Hopper stands there breathing heavily. He lights up a smoke, takes a few shaky drags, and says, "Fine, in that case you're a pair of reckless SOBs."

 

 

Max is sitting on the ratty, frayed recliner, beside the ratty, frayed couch, looking at her stepbrother, who is snoring loudly on the couch. His jeans are hacked off like shorts on one side and he has bandages around his thigh and calf.

Steve is in their kitchen, cooking what may, quite possibly, be the first edible meal ever made in the place. She gets up and stands by the fridge. She's trying to give him the stare down that Billy always uses to get her to crack under pressure, but it's not working. Underneath that hair, Steve is a lot tougher than he looks, in a multitude of ways.

He ignores her.

"Tell me what happened, again?" she asks, at length.

"I already told you about a hundred times," he says, chopping onions, barely acknowledging her, "we spun out, he didn't have his seat belt on, and he went right out the door."

"That asshole is always on me about the seat belt."

Steve shrugs. "Well," he says, "once he's better you'll have one more thing to bust his balls about."

"Mmm."

The whole thing sounds pretty cockamamie to her, but she can see she's getting no where. I mean, shouldn't he have a head wound or something? How does a person fly out of a moving vehicle without a head wound? And that leg was bleeding like a fucker, she'd seen Steve change it once already and they'd only been there a few hours.

She goes back in the living room. Blue eyes meet hers, and all her skepticism is replaced by much more relief than she wants to acknowledge.

She sits on the edge of the couch.

"The hell, Billy?" she asks, trying to sound tough but mostly sounding scared.

"Don't do that." He mumbles, in response to her poorly hidden anxiety. "I'm fine."

Steve comes barreling in at the sound of his voice. "Hey buddy," he says, too fast; too forced, "you remember what happened?"

Max is watching them carefully. She notices a muscle twitch in her step brother's face.

"No."

She listens while Steve gives Billy the exact same version he'd just given to her, in the kitchen; notices the incredulous glare he sends him at the seatbelt part.

She moves to the recliner and crosses her arms, wheels turning.

She's learned more about Billy in the past year, than she ever did in all the years at home. She's learned that put a coat on, shithead means like it or not, I care about you, that Maria wouldn't like it means I want to say no but I don't want to be the heavy; that Max generally means she's trying his patience, while Maxine means he's reaching critical mass and will, at this point, have no problem being the heavy.

And she's learned one more thing: the little face twitch means he's hiding something.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Dustin's mother invites them for Thanksgiving.

"C'mon Billy," Max wheedles, "I don't want chicken nuggets again, and I don't want to spend all day thinking about them."

"Low blow." he notes drily. "You can go eat with the cat lady. I'll even give you a ride. I'm good with chicken nuggets."

She huffs, crosses her arms. "I'm not going without you."

"Then I guess you're not going."

There's a pause. He doesn't know why he's giving her such a hard time, exactly, he just knows that his leg still aches, his wallet's still empty, and it feels too much like charity.

"Steve's coming." She says at last, as if that changes anything.

"So."

"So, you're friends now, right? Friends hang out together."

He glares at her through his eyelashes, but there's no bite. He knows he's being curmudgeonly, is kind of touched that she won't go without him.

Also, Steve.

She senses his crumbling resolve and bats her eyelashes. Honest to fuck, bats her eyelashes.

"Jesus, ok" he grumbles, '"just don't do that again."

And so it is that Billy Hargrove finds himself in an afghan covered rocker recliner, with a small, purring loaf of feline on his lap. He's deeply, deeply mourning the death of his status as local badass, while Mrs. Henderson shows Max her "Cat o'the Month" calendar. 

"We should get a cat." Max calls to him from the dining room.

"I should smother you in your sleep for bringing me here." he mutters under his breath.

Dustin plops into the chair across from him.

"So," he says, "Max says you've been rammin' around with Steve."

Billy about spits out his drink that is, regrettably, not booze. "What?"

"Yeah," the kid gives him a goofy grin, "got thrown out of his car. Badass."

"Mmmm."

"Kinda funny, you know? I mean, a few years ago you almost killed him."

Coming from anyone else, he would probably suspect this comment is meant to get his goat, but he knows enough about Dustin, at this point, to understand his communication style.

Billy glances around for Steve, sees him in the kitchen. Probably basting the turkey or some other ridiculously domestic thing that he absolutely does not find endearing. Not even a little.


Dustin is still staring at him. Christ....just how fucking hot is it in this house?

"Water under the bridge." He says, getting up, patting his shirt for that comforting, familiar rectangle. "Gonna go have a smoke."

He catches Steve by the elbow on his way through the kitchen (dear God, he's actually mashing potatoes), and they stand on the back porch together, Billy smoking and Steve waiting.

"What's the problem?" he asks, after watching Billy suck half the cigarette down in one drag. "What's up your ass?"

"It's Dustin," he tosses his head toward the house, "I don't know. He's being weird."

"He's always weird," says Steve, sounding defensive, "we can't all be Greek gods."

Billy smirks at him through a cloud of smoke. He actually has a bit of a bone to pick with Steve, and this is as good a lead in as any. "Thanks for the seat belt bullshit, by the way. I have to hear about it every fucking time we get in the car, now."

This earns him a grin so bright it momentarily distracts him.

"I'm serious, you hear me Harrington? Believe it or not, I do have a couple lines in the sand. I hate hard drugs, and I hate dishonesty."

Steve studies him. "We're lying for a good cause." he offers, and damn it, he's not wrong. "Y'know, now that you mention it, Dustin has been asking me a lot of 'weirder than usual' questions lately."

"Max, too."

"Ah shit, you don't think--"

Billy shoots him a dark look. "I hope not. If Max is on to us, my life will get real difficult."

He studies a spot to the left of Steve's head; tries to figure out how much to give up.

"I gave her such a hard time about keeping them secret, and now I'm doing the same thing." He says at last, with a frustrated huff. "I know I'm a hypocrite, ok? But if she finds out she's gonna want in, and that is not happening."

"I get it." says Steve, in a voice that's way too soft, and suddenly he's pissed. Pissed that he shared so much; left himself so open. He's sure the guy's going to make it weird, try to offer up some half assed psychobabble -- but then Steve gives his momentary lapse of facade a smirk and a shrug and Billy can't help but roll his eyes.

"Oh, shut up." He says, but he's looking away with a grin . "Go mash your damn potatoes, Suzie Homemaker."

 

 

 

Christmas morning there is a present under their scraggly, under-watered tree, that he knows he didn't put there, and he's 99% sure Max didn't either.

He goes and pounds on her door, just in case.

"What?" She snarls, standing in the half light with her hair in her face, then, "Oh! Did Santa come?"

He smirks at her, and she flushes. She was trying to sound sarcastic, but it came out as excited.

"Santa's broke."

She shrugs. "I don't care." She's on her way past the tree, no doubt to the coffee maker. She's developed a raging caffeine addiction, courtesy of her job at the diner. He can't even express how thankful he is that she has yet another bad habit. "What is that?"

She's pointing at the foreign looking box on the floor.

"Was gonna ask you that." he mutters, coming to stand beside her.

"That wasn't there last night!"

"No shit, Sherlock."

"Well then who--" she stops short, stares at him, eyes widening, "who has a key to get in?"

"Nobody."

Twitch.

Max studies him, hard. He can see the wheels turning; knows they're spinning to a place that's going to be nothing but one giant pain in the ass.

"C'mon!" he says with enthusiasm that's at least 50% bullshit, "go get some coffee so we can do presents."

It does the trick, almost as well as bacon, and ten minutes later they're sitting in front of the tree like a scene out of White fucking Christmas. She becomes the proud, official owner of his Megadeath tee shirt (she keeps wearing it to bed without asking, anyway, so what the hell), a Bon Jovi tape he swears to God she better not play in his car (he's firmly in the class of guys who refers to them as 'bon blow-me'), new skateboard wheels, and a ridiculous chocolate Santa that he had to break his boycott of the pharmacy to purchase. (Max definitely shouldn't have knocked them over....but that didn't stop him from holding a grudge that they called Hopper on her.) He gets a carton of cigarettes (she's going to steal half and they both know it), some Max-made cookies (he's going to eat them even though he's sure they are terrible), and a really nice earring. When he puts it in, she flips her head just so and points to her own ear, where the other one resides.

"Real nice," he drawls, "you took half my Christmas present."

They spend a second admiring their shit and his throat is not constricted over the earring, damn it. He coughs loudly, lights a smoke, and nods to the mystery box. 

"Open it." he says.

Max gives him an uncertain look, then scoots across the floor and tears off the paper. It's a white, Styrofoam cooler, and when she goes to pop the top open, his curiosity gets the best of him.

Inside, surrounded by half melted freezer packs, is Christmas dinner: a small ham, and some mashed potatoes carefully wrapped in Tupperware he knows damn well belongs to Joyce Byers. There are smaller containers (mostly margarine or cool whip) containing gravy, corn, rolls, yams. On the bottom, in it's own box, is a small, homemade carrot cake. A note on top says: Merry Christmas in block letters, like some kind of ransom note.

He wants to be offended by the charity. If he's honest with himself (which seems to be happening more and more lately), when people treat them as family, it makes him itch from the inside out. People who care about them usually wind up disappointed, and he's learned to save time by not letting them.

But, Max's eyes are sparkling in a way that makes him itch a little less. And this has Joyce and Steve written all over it.  He's seen Joyce finish off a demodog with a kitchen knife, for crying out loud. He knows his balls aren't big enough for that fight.

Chapter Text

Naturally, everything goes to shit soon after the holidays. It starts when Jim Hopper, chief of police, avid Jim Croce fan and unassuming badass in too tight khaki - almost gets finished off by something they well and truly can't see now that the snow is melting.

One second he's crouched behind a wall at the old lab, giving Steve and Billy the stink eye for bickering in whispers that aren't really whispers at all, and the next he is down. Joyce is only a dozen or so steps away, but by the time she gets there, and gets a shot fired into the empty space above him, he's already lost an impressive swath of flesh around his arm and his gut is bleeding profusely.

Steve gets there before Billy, a fact he will most certainly lord over him once the smoke clears, and manages to catch sight of the beast as it flickers in and out of visibility, struggling with the wound Joyce has inflicted. He swings, hard, knocks it off Jim and.....directly on to Billy.

"The fuck!" He yells, pissed by the shock and the possibility of having to explain yet another wound to an increasingly nosy stepsister.

Steve responds by taking one shot, then another, and diving on to the thing.

It would be comical if it weren't so damn serious. The monster is flickering like Godzilla on a TV with bad reception, in and out of his vision, with Steve riding it's back. One second he looks like he's flying; the next he's riding a mountain of gooey demodog.

Something shiny catches Billy's eye; it's Joyce's knife, abandoned in the snow while she attempts to drag Jim out of harm's way. He grabs it, yells for Steve -- which distracts the thing and causes it to pause -- and throws the knife.

Steve catches it by the wrong end, because that's exactly the kind of luck they're having, lately. Billy actually wants to roll his eyes, but the guy is tough, he's gotta give him that, because he pulls the knife out of his own flesh and drives it into the back of it's neck -- right in the kill zone.

It chucks him off his back, roars, and topples.

Billy can't stop laughing. In fact, he's laughing his ass off like a goddamn maniac when he sees movement behind a tree to their left. He stops short, grabs the bat and swings around, but the movement is gone.

Later, after they get Hopper loaded up and dispose of the dog, they walk over and take a look. There's still snow in the woods, and the spot in question is full of foot prints. A couple feet away is what looks to be a hastily abandoned mitten, and he recognizes it right away. For a few seconds, he's too blindsided to speak.

Maxine is supposedly at the library with Dustin, who has been trying (probably in vain) to help her pass their next science quiz.

But that mitten?

It's hers.

 

 

 

They spend the better part of the next two hours trying to figure out what their next move is going to be, now that they no longer have the snow in their favor, and helping Joyce patch up the Chief. He's easily the worlds grumpiest patient -- he's pissed off that he didn't see the thing coming, pissed at Steve and Billy for their endless bickering, and most of all, that he can't find his kid.

It's a sensation that Billy can definitely relate to.

"You two are gonna get us killed!" Hopper grouses, not for the first time.

He doesn't respond to that. For one thing, the Chief has already told them they need to either "fight or fuck or whatever you need to do to get it out of your systems" and didn't that cut a little close to the bone? Also, he's itching to go home and put Maxine's ass in a sling. Grounding her for the rest of her life is looking like a very appealing way to nip this disaster in the bud; but he knows it's not that easy. He can't keep them all home. And If she was out there today, they all were. No way is Jane's disappearance a coincidence.

"Going to get Max" He says, and heads out the door.

 

 

 

The kids, who are rapidly becoming not kids, by the way, are huddled in a semi circle, behind the arcade. They have their backs to the road, and it looks for all the world like there's some shady shit going down. In reality, Dustin is droning on about molecular structures and adhesive properties.

"It looks like baby powder." Will says, poking the bag of white dust with his finger.

"It looks like blow." Max says, distinctly, causing everyone to stare. She sighs. They are babes in the woods, in Hawkins, Indiana, and sometimes she forgets that. "Cocaine."

Will pokes it again, causing Mike to swat his hand away and mutter, "Don't, you'll make it lumpy."

"So, when should we tell them?"

That was Lucas, and Max flashes him a grin. "Not until after Wednesday."

Mike rolls his eyes. "We know. Wednesday is the driving test."

Dustin holds the bag of powder up to the fading sunlight. "What do you think they'll--"

"What the hell?" Billy is there out of nowhere, it seems; snatches the bag out of Dustin's hand.

Maxine barely has to time to register his presence before there's a fire in her upper arm and she's scrambling to find her footing while being dragged backwards over the lumps and bumps of the arcades scrubby spring lawn. The boys are running after them, yelling things she can't hear for the blood rushing past her ears; things she's absolutely certain Billy can't hear, either. 

He yanks the drivers side door open and shoves her into the car head first, finally releasing her arm, before getting in, himself, and hip checking her ungracefully over the shifter and into her seat.

"Billy!" she rubs her arm, furiously, feeling like maybe she's time traveled back to '85 with the way he's behaving --

--then she realizes what the problem is.

She remembers about his mother. Remembers Neil slinging words like "drug addict" and "needle freak" at him when he wanted to inflict a different kind of damage. Billy's smoked enough weed in his life to make Cheech Marin look like a poster boy for the newly minted "Just Say No" campaign, but never anything more. And now she remembers why. He has a thing about that.

They get home and into the house, and he cuts her off en route to her room; shoves the bag in her face.

"What is this?" He asks, voice dead flat.

Her brain is going a million miles an hour. She can't tell him about the Monster Dust without betraying her friends, and she doesn't want to admit she was spying on him. All she can get out is, "I can't."

"Maxine."

 "It's not what you think!"

 "Then what is it?"

 "I can't tell you, ok? I can't -- you just have to -- look I know! I know what it looks like! I know how you feel about that stuff, I--." she lowers her voice, doesn't finish.

 "You don't know anything."

 "You have to believe me."

 "That's a laugh."

He sneers at her, and her desire to avoid the subject of monsters goes out the window, as her indignation morphs into red hot anger.

 "Oh, like you're some patron saint of honesty? You've been sneaking off fighting demodogs for months!"

 "Nobody wanted you guys to know about that, because it's dangerous." He hurls at her, and he's too close, in her face. "You know what else? I don't have to explain where I go to you -- all I have to do is pay the fucking bills and feed your fucking face and keep you safe!"

"Well, aren't you just a knight in shining armor, these days?"

He takes a few steps forward and she backs up, on instinct, because hell if he doesn't look every bit as menacing as the old Billy right now and it makes her chest feel hollow; makes her want to run.

"I let you get away with a lot of sneaky shit, Max, but I'm done. You were supposed to be at the library today, and you weren't. You were out in the woods spying on us -- and then I find you behind the arcade with this?"

He shoves that bag of monster dust at her again and her frustration boils over. She smacks it out of his hand and it flies across the room; sprays out of the bag and sticks to the damn wall.

Nobody notices.

"I wouldn't be sneaking around, if you'd been straight with me in the first place!"

"I don't have to be straight with you about my business. You're a fucking kid!"

"That's a bullshit excuse, and you know it!"

 "Yeah? You wanna hear some bullshit? You can kiss your drivers test goodbye!"

 OK, that stings.

Max sucks in her breath.....and shoves him. Hard. He doesn't go over, because he's got his goddamn feet planted, but he takes a step back -- and then strikes like an angry snake. He gets a fist full of her hoodie and twists, yanking her up onto her toes so they can be eye to eye.

She squeaks, despite herself, and they seem to hang there a few seconds, suspended in time, before his eyes clear and he lets go; walks away from her in strong, determined strides like he can't get away quick enough.  

Walks right out the door.

 

 

 

Steve finds Billy on his third trip around the outskirts of Hawkins, 9 miles out of town, give or take. The clock is creeping up on 2 a.m. and he's exhausted, but he has a sobbing teenage girl in his house and, frankly, he'd rather be here than there.

The car is parked well off the road, and he can see a figure on the hood; the orange of a lit cigarette tip.

He pulls up behind it.

Billy's voice drifts through his open window. "Go away, Harrington."

He gets out and stands in the space of the open car door. Talks across his roof.

"Max is worried about you."

"Max is in some serious shit when I get home."

"Well," says Steve, "that's part of the problem. She's not home. She's at my place. Showed up about an hour ago."

Billy snorts, smoke drifting out his nose. "You think that's somehow better?"

"Look, they told us about the stuff in the bag. It's not what you think. I mean," he pauses, "it's not great, but it's not drugs, at least."

No response.

"God, you're such a stubborn fucking hard ass sometimes." Steve shakes his head. "It's something they made to help with the demodogs, ok?"

More silence.

He heaves a sigh; throws out something he knows will goad him into talking. "You said you were trying."

"I am!" Billy snarls, "Can't you tell by the bang up job I'm doing?"

Steve regards him in silence, then takes a pointed look at their surroundings. "Doesn't look like it to me."

He senses Billy's eyes on him, not unlike a monster, but he's not scared. Not anymore. The thing is, Steve's a lot braver than anyone gives him credit for -- a hell of a lot braver than Billy, truth be told. In fact, if he thought the guy was emotionally ready to face the urges that are so painfully obvious whenever they practice together, he'd cross the road right now, pull him close, and tell him it'll be ok; tell him his efforts aren't in vain, that Max is a way better kid than she was a year ago.

Tell him he sees him.

But. Right now is not the time, and Steve may not be the brightest bulb on the proverbial Christmas tree, but he knows that.

"Go home, Harrington." Billy says. "Get in your beamer and go home to your nice warm bed, in your nice part of town, and tell my step sister I'll pick her sorry ass up in the morning."

Steve watches the still glowing cigarette butt fly across the sky in an arc.

He gets in his car, and goes home.

 

Chapter Text

"How?" Hopper asks, for what seems like the billionth time. He's got his hands in what's left of his hair, and Billy is watching him from across his desk. It's like the tampon incident, all over again, except they aren't alone this time, and he doesn't feel like laughing.

"Because they're smart, " Steve replies, leaning on the filing cabinet, "and they do. Somehow, those little shits figured us out."

Joyce is pacing. Literally pacing

"Well, I can tell you one thing, Will is NOT going out there.".

"Neither is Max."

He feels three sets of eyes settle on him. It's the first thing he's said since they entered this room; first thing he's said all day, as a matter of fact.

Hopper clears his throat. "How's that goin'?"

"None of your business." says Billy, looking him right in the eye.

Truth is, it's not going. Thirty-six hours later and she's still at Steve's. All of their attempts at communication seem to end in fireworks. He was ready to literally haul her ass over his shoulder and cart her home during their last "discussion", but then she turned just right and inadvertently showed him the underside of her arm. She was sporting a set of angry, purple bruises the exact size and shape of his fingertips, courtesy of him dragging her from the back of the arcade to the car.

He promptly threw up in Mrs. Harringtons spring daffodils, then went home and got blind drunk.

I am not my father, he repeats in his head, before realizing he's missed something. Hopper is staring at him expectantly.

"Huh?"

 "I said, is everybody keeping their hands to themselves?

He growls at Hopper, something that sounds passable for a yes, and closes that particular subject by saying, "Now, what is this shit they think they've found to help us?"

"It's like baby powder," Steve rushes in, clearly on board with the whole 'subject changing' thing, "but it's sticky. I don't know. Dustin explains it better than I can."

Nobody is particularly surprised that Steve can't explain it. Billy feels a stir of affection; tamps it down. Now, is most definitely not the time.

"So....what?" he asks, bitterly. "We call them over all here kitty, kitty-like and ask them to sit still while we dust them in it?"

"We can find a way to shoot it at them." says Joyce, but it sounds more like a question than a statement.

"Bullets." The Chief says, after a pause. "We can encase it in bullets, maybe."

Steve emits a sigh that sounds like he's anticipating a slow, painful death. "We're going to have to ask them for help."

"NO. If we ask them for help, they're going to think that means they can come." Billy replies, and then, feeling Joyce's eyes on him, turns to glare at her, snarling, "What?"

She shakes her head, looks away. "Nothing."

"Look," he grits out, "social workers frown on letting your orphan get eaten by monsters, ok?"

"Hey!" Hopper says, sharp, in his quit being rude to Joyce voice. He takes his eyes off Billy, moves them to Steve. "I don't think we have a choice. They're the only one who know exactly how this shit works......and you know as well as I do you can't involve one unless you involve them all."

 

 

 

"Listen," Steve says, later, while they're standing in the parking lot, "I know she wants to come home. She's just...."

His voice drifts off, his eyes to heaven.

"Impossibly stubborn?" supplies Billy. He notes Steve's nod; lights a smoke. He doesn't take much satisfaction in the news, because he's surprisingly miserable without her dirty dishes and her mood swings -- her shitty attitude that,  defying all laws of human genetics, she has somehow gotten from him.

He also feels like a first class asshole about those bruises. He tries to tell himself that Neil put far larger ones on her, on both of them, but it's no excuse, and he knows it.

"I can't give in," he says, out loud, "it's too dangerous." What he leaves hanging is that it's too dangerous for him, too. If she goes into the fray, he's going to be too busy worrying about her to take care of himself.

"Dude," Steve's voice interrupts his thoughts, "I don't know how you do it. I seriously don't." Billy glances up, feels like laughing for the first time in days, at the manic expression on his face, "For one thing, where does she put all that food? She eats like she has a hollow leg."

Billy smirks. He offered Steve food money he didn't really have, but, of course, he wouldn't take it.  "Sure you don't want some money?"

Steve dismisses him with a wave of his hand. His eyes are glossy, like he's got some kind of PTSD. Makes Billy think of something. "Look, don't mention the food thing though, OK? Neil used to give her a hard time about her appetite, tell her she was gonna get fat or some shit. Told her it wasn't lady like, whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean." He pauses, "She's really sensitive about it."

"Oh yeah? She's sensitive about it, huh? Well, that's a shocker......she's sensitive about everything!  It's like living in a minefield!"

"Now you know why I drink so much."

Steve goes on as if he hasn't heard a word, "One minute she's bitching about you, then she's crying that she misses her mom, then she hates her mom and she misses home -- then she's crying over her drivers test and how it's going to take months to reschedule. She's told me that about a hundred times....and 30 seconds later she wants to know if Lucas can comer over."

"You want me to try to make her come home?" he asks, not without a certain amount of trepidation.

Steve still looks shell shocked, but shoots him a sympathetic glance that makes him want to fuck him and punch him, all at the same time. "Nah." he says, "I wouldn't put you in that position. I know this sucks." He pauses, "But maybe after we meet with the kids you should come over and talk to her again. Maybe she'll be calmer then."

He snorts.

Harrington. Always the optimist.

 

 

 

Clusterfuck: noun

USvulgar slang

noun: clusterfuck; plural noun: clusterfucks; noun: cluster-fuck; plural noun: cluster-fucks

  1. a disastrously mishandled situation or undertaking
  2. what happens when they get the kids together to talk about monsters

 

They're having their pow wow at casa Byers, and it's going about as well as anyone expected.

Dustin, Lucas, and Mike are all firmly committed to not making any more monster dust, or showing them how to use what they already have, until they get a guarantee they can come with.  No amount of brow beating from the Chief, reasoning from Steve, or cajoling from Joyce, is changing their minds, either.

Max.....well, Max isn't speaking to anyone. She is pointedly ignoring her stepbrother, who is pointedly ignoring her back.

Will isn't even there. Nobody would be surprised if his mom has him hog tied in a closet somewhere.

Jane looks between the two parties (the yellers and the ignorers), rolls her eyes, and decides to keep to her own council. She's too bad ass for petty bickering, and she knows it. Eventually, though, there's a lull in the arguing, so she says in a loud, clear voice, "They are coming from the lab. I know the lab better than any of you--"

"No." says Hopper.

And then they're off again.

Finally, she stands, dark, curly head bobbing up from the couch, lowers her line of vision, and knocks a glass off the counter from across the room. It shatters spectacularly, which earns her a dirty look from her surrogate Dad but also shuts everyone up.

"I can slow them down." She says again, speaking evenly and succinctly in a voice clearly meant to remind them she can, actually, kill them if she wants to. "I can do it from a safe place, if that makes you feel better. I only have to see them, not get close to them."

There is a moments silence, while the kids wait with baited breath and Hopper stares from Jane to Joyce, his wheels clearly turning. Finally, he mutters a resigned, "Fine."

They spend the next hour arguing over the details of their plan, trying to find one that's a good compromise between safety and effectiveness.

Except Max. Because fuck compromise.

 

 

 

They've barely wedged themselves into Steve's beamer before it starts again, and this time it's not about who is sneaking where, who lied about what, or even who revoked whose driving privileges.

It's about the monsters.

"You are not going." Billy says, twisting around in the passenger's seat so he can glare at her properly.

"Oh," she spreads her arms wide, "I am so going. SO GOING! And if you're going, I don't know how you think you can stop me."

"I need to keep you safe!" He bellows, making her shrink back ever so slightly in her seat, "What do you think is gonna happen if you break a leg or have to get stitches, huh? How do you think that's gonna look to Maria? Hospitals report to social workers, Max!"

"Mrs. Byers can patch me up!"

"For real?? What do you think....she's a doctor?? Sewing up a cut is nothing! She can't fix a broken leg or a head injury!"

Steve pulls into his driveway with a bump and they are both out of the car at lightening speed; both slamming the doors.

Steve doesn't get out.

"I don't care!" She spins around to face him. "And you don't get to lecture me about safety! A few years ago, you were the person I needed protection from!"

"Quit throwing the past in my face, Maxine."

"You're a fucking hypocrite!" She screams, dragging out the last word.

He takes a few steps back, breathes deeply. "For the last time," he says, "I don't care about being a hypocrite. Get it through your head! I made so many shitty decisions in my life, as far as I'm concerned, if I did it -- you shouldn't!"

She crosses her arms. Plants her damn feet. "I saved up enough money. I can pay for the test myself."

"Oh yeah? Well, guess what, princess. You still need my signature."

She looks mad enough to spit, and goddamn it, he's feeling pretty smug about that, when she says in a slow, halting voice, "You are just like him."

 

 

 

Max wants to take it back, as soon as she says it. She's bracing herself for a response, but he doesn't make one. Instead, he dusts off that intense, unreadable expression he used to wear around Neil, lights a cigarette, and walks away.

Somehow, that's worse.

 

 

 

Billy is standing at the end of Harrington's driveway, sucking down a cigarette with shaking fingers and listening with one ear to what's going on up at the house.

It's a pretty magnificent display, and he should know, he's seen a lot of them.

Steve, who is almost always as cool as a cucumber, is yelling. 

"You just wore out your welcome, Max!" He hears, and he thinks, for the first time in her life, she must be too stunned to respond. "That was over the line! I want you out! Now!"

He tosses his smoke; grinds it out with his heel, then sticks it in his pocket because Steve is a fussy ass. He listens as footsteps make their way across the black top.

Steve shoulder checks him, gently. "She didn't mean it."

He looks up to say he's not so sure, but he doesn't get a chance. Steve shoves him up against a maple. Kisses him, hard.

When they break away, Steve's staring at him with wary eyes, and he realizes, the guy has been waiting a while to do that -- waiting for the right time, the right shot of adrenaline to make him fearless.

Billy smirks; watches the tension drain out of Steve's face in response.

"Didn't know you had it in ya, Harringon." He says.

Steve turns and walks back toward the house, just as Max comes out the door, looking embarrassed and weepy.

"Go home and work some shit out." He tosses at them, over his shoulder. Then he goes inside and locks his expensive front door behind him.  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"What the fuck?"

Maxine stares at the hole where her door knob was, only seconds before; blinks a few times to make sure she's not imagining things.

She's not.

The door shoves open, toppling the now useless chair over in the process. Billy waves a dismissive hand at it. "Sick of that shit, Max. Come out so we can talk."

He wants to talk. He wants her to stay safe. She swears sometimes she's living in the Twilight Zone. Some kind of alien has stolen her step brother and replaced him with this quieter, less dangerous, more annoying as fuck version of his former self.

She stares at the hole in the door, thinks about what she said earlier. Thinks about all the shit he doesn't even know about; half smoked joints under the bleachers with Mike Wheeler, trips out the window while he's passed out on the couch with too many beer cans littered around.

He's got a point about her sneakiness. And, truth be told, he's trying to make this work a hell of a lot harder than she is, and she knows it.

Judging by that humiliating fiasco earlier, even Steve Harrington knows it.

On the other hand, he'd made such a scene at the arcade that she'd probably never live it down, and cancelled her drivers test over some monster dust and a lie that, frankly, was pretty fucking justified.

"Max!"

"I'm coming, Jesus!" She shuffles out and plops onto the other end of the couch; can't keep the snottiness out of her voice when she says, "Fine, let's talk."

He doesn't comment. Doesn't even look at her, and that makes her gut twist because it's a stark reminder that she said the most unforgivable thing in their world, earlier.

"I didn't mean to say--"

"Save it." he bites out, voice flat, poker face in place. He sounds bone weary. "I don't know what to do," he says, "I really don't. I can't let the other three down, but I know if I leave you here alone, you'll follow."

"Hopper said he'd build a safe spot, up in the trees, for Jane. I could go there, too. "

Billy shakes his head, tightens his jaw; doesn't say anything.

"Look, I was just so mad about the drivers test."

"You had that coming."

Maybe. But it still pisses her off to hear it. "Like hell!"

He shrugs.

Shrugs.

"What the fuck, Billy! You've been sneaking around fighting monsters since at least before Thanksgiving. And you lied right to my face about your injuries, because no way did you get those from flying out of a car -- then you have the nerve to be mad at me for lying about going to the library?"

He doesn't react; doesn't budge. It makes her see red.

"All I wanted was to know what the hell was going on! And you lost your shit over the monster powder! We were trying to help you guys, and you wouldn't even listen when I told you it wasn't what you thought! And now you want me to sit home, like some baby, when everyone else is going? I'm supposed to sit here and worry you're going to get --"

She stops abruptly. She was not planning to admit that. Not even a little.

But it's true.

All of a sudden, the room is too close, too quiet. She wants to flee, go back to her room but her goddamn door is busted, thank you very much Billy, so she opts for staring into her lap, instead.

"You're right about the monster powder." he says, and he sounds bitter, but sincere. "And I'm sorry I dragged you off like that, put fucking bruises on your arm. I'm a chip off the ol' block, ok? I'm an asshole, I know that."

"Save it." she mimics.

He lights a cigarette, smokes it down to the filter with alarming speed. "Listen to me. It's not the same as it used to be."

"No shit. You're an even bigger pain in the ass now than you were before. And believe me, I did not think that was possible."

"Yeah, well." He shrugs; rolls his eyes.

She can read between the lines well enough to know that means he cares about her. But it doesn't help much.

"Look," he says, "I didn't want you to know because I knew you'd want to be out there, and it's dangerous. Don't you think it might be nice for you to spend a few years not having to worry about getting hurt?"

She hates it when he's the reasonable person in their equation. Hates it.

"It doesn't seem to be an issue for you." she replies.

"I am an angry person, what can I say?" he shoots back. "I enjoy killing those things. It's a good way to blow off steam. Maria would be impressed."

"Risking your life is therapeutic, now?"

Max can feel him studying her. "It sucks, I know. I'm a hypocrite, and I know that gets under your skin but...it's too late for me on some things. I'm not exactly going to take up knitting or jogging to deal with my anger. This is the healthiest I get."

She can hear what's left hanging, that it's not too late for her to find better ways. "I hear you," she says, quietly, "but I can't let my party down any more than you can let yours down."

They're at an impasse. They've said all the things they weren't saying before, but it didn't fix a thing.

He knows it, too. She watches as the poker face slide back on, sees his jaw set.

"You show up there tonight, I promise to make you regret it." He says, shifting his vision to look her in the eye, "But you decide to do it anyway, you better stay in the safe zone -- and make sure you get those new skateboard wheels on, 'cause that's gonna be your only mode of transportation for a long time. You'll be skateboarding to your goddamn high school graduation."

 

 

 

Billy realizes she's gone, about an hour before the meet up time.

Out the window, just like the old days, and honestly? He's relieved. He's pissed, too, no doubt about it -- because he's Billy: everything funnels down to pissed off, in the the end. But he can also recognize, now, that his anger is infused with fear, and tempered by relief that he doesn't have to suffer through another scene that isn't going to change anything.

At this point, he'd rather handle the fall out; figures she must feel the same.

He starts getting ready to go, but it's not with much focus. His brain is spinning with memories of hard maple bark and soft lips; the word faggot, spat at him with the kind of vitriol most people reserve for their enemies and not their offspring.

He glances into Max's messy room one more time, on his way out. Respect and responsibility shouldn't be so damn hard.

Then he goes to kill some monsters.

 

 

 

Max gets to the meet up spot at dusk. She leans her board up against the base of the tree, smirking at the sound of her friends bickering in the makeshift tree stand, high above. She climbs the ladder as quietly as possible, pops her head up through the hole and roars.

Everyone but Jane jumps, and she's thinking this is the best she's felt in days, when she hears Hopper behind her.

"C'mon, Red. Get your ass up there. I was just about to have a discussion with you guys."

She pulls herself up through the hole and takes Lucas' extended hand, gratefully, to help her to her feet. She tries to listen to the Chief's sternly delivered Safety Lecture, honest she does......but God she's so tired of discussions, at this point. And the fact that she can clearly feel a set of blue eyes boring a hole in her skull from across the clearing isn't doing much for her focus.

She's accepted that she's making a decision that has consequences; has accepted that this is going to make life miserable for a while -- but she's still not excited to see the look on Billy's face.

"Hey Red!" Hopper barks, "You listening?"

"Yep!"  She's not listening. But it's pretty easy to figure out what he said: stay in the safe zone, don't leave the safe zone, I'll kill anyone who leaves the safe zone, etc..

It's not exactly rocket science.

"Do NOT move out of here." Hopper says, giving each of them the stink eye in turn, "I know you think you can handle it, because you've fought them before, but they aren't the same animal they were then." He pauses, takes a breath, and ends with an eloquent, "I will personally kick the ass of anyone who tries to get involved, for any reason."

He's mostly looking at Jane, who is blinking back at him with supreme boredom painted on every feature. Max half expects her to yawn in his face.

It's a feeling she can 100% relate to.

"OK." Mike pipes up, sounding unapologetically dismissive, "Remember, you only have 50 of those powder bullets and they have to hit them dead on or they won't blow."

The Chief nods one nod, then turns to head for his hiding spot, beside Joyce.

"Christ," Max mutters, "they have us so fucking far away we need binoculars."

"Got 'em." Dustin says.

Because, of course Dustin brought binoculars. Of course he did.

He hands them over and she turns the knob until Hopper comes into view, crossing the clearing in determined strides to where Joyce is waiting. Not far away are the boys; crouched together on the south end of the building. Her stepbrother is looking off into the distance and Steve....well, he's staring at Billy.

"I feel it, too." Jane says, quietly, from beside her. She's looking in the same direction, and Max feels in her gut that she's not referring to a demodog.

Max shakes her head, mutters, "Maybe Billy wouldn't be such an asshole if he'd just give in."

"Not an asshole." Says Jane, matter of factly, "Scared."

Max doesn't get what the big deal is. She's seen Billy with a lot of girls, and he never looked at even one of them the way he looks at Steve. But then she hears Neil's voice, calling Billy a faggot, slamming him against he wall; and she knows why he's scared.

"His papa was a bad man."

"Yeah." Max agrees, half heartedly. This entire conversation isn't doing much for her feelings of guilt. Then, right as she's about to hand the binoculars back to Dustin, something catches her eye. "Guys, look!"

"Whoa!" Mike jumps up, jabbing a finger at the roof above Billy and Steve.

Four clearly visible demodogs have popped onto the rooftop and are slinking slowly toward the edge.

"Son of a bitch!" Dustin hisses, "No way can they take four at once! Not even with the powder!"

The words are barely out of his mouth before one blinks out of sight -- then another.

"ROOF!" Lucas yells across the clearing, "Four on the roof!"

Without warning, Joyce goes down in the mud, hard and fast

That's really all it takes for them to blow Hoppers carefully constructed safety lecture to confetti. They scramble down the tree en masse, the distance across the clearing suddenly seeming like miles. Max finds herself sprinting for all she's worth, toward Billy and Steve; it's not even a decision.

Dustin is right beside her. Lucas and Mike are both hell bent for Hopper and Joyce, and Jane is holding the rear, walking with quick and deadly determination.

"Son of a bitch!" Dustin yells again, and she casts him a sidelong glance, missing a tree root in the process and going down hard on her chest. She scrambles back up, finds her footing -- and looks.

Billy and Steve are each fighting their own beast, and she catches sight of a third, on the roof above them, just before it blinks out of sight. 

"Look out above!" She screams. Steve twists around at the sound of her voice, then does a header, his feet knocked right out from under him.

Max runs faster than she's ever run in her life, a sense a helplessness blooming hard in her chest. Dustin gets there before her, skids to a stop next to Steve, and grabs a discarded bat; starts swinging for all he's worth.

There's a muffled pop, then another. The white, powdery outline of a demodog blooms into vision above Steve and Dustin gives it a hard thwak.

"Get down!" Hopper's voice tears across the clearing and she hits the ground right as more gunfire explodes around her. The beast doesn't go down, but it's flickering now, by turns hazy white and solid, slimy, greenish gray. She spits out a mouthful of mud; scrambles to her feet.

Dustin screams and before she can even comprehend what she's seeing, the thing has whipped him up, high into the air by the scruff of his jacket.

"Dustin!" Steve yells in a voice she doesn't recognize, and tears toward him -- bat in one hand, gun in the other. From the corner of her eye, she sees Joyce sprinting across the field, knife tucked in her belt. Hopper, Mike, and Lucas are on her heels, but they still seem impossibly far.

She turns, frantic, looking for Billy. He's right behind her; looking equal parts terrified and homicidal. He snatches the air for her, but he's tackled from the side; knocked flat by a still invisible beast. His arm makes an audible pop as the thing grabs it and drags him down the field.

Everyone else is too busy trying to save Dustin to notice. Max scrambles for a gun labeled POWDER in large, white letters, a few yards away; grabs it and changes direction to give chase. She fires awkwardly in the direction of the demodog, but nothing happens.

She screams at the top of her lungs, and shoots again. Suddenly she can see the hazy, white outline of a very startled demo dog, looking straight at her.

They both stop.

Billy manages to wriggle out from under the thing while it's distracted, yells something to Max that sounds an awful lot like a death threat but she can't hear for the drums in her ears. He gets a few steps and the demodog snaps back to attention; bats him like a cat with a mouse, and sends him flying.

Max is completely and unexpectedly livid.

"Back off my brother,  you asshole!"

Billy is scrambling to his feet a few yards away; stands there for a millisecond, looking stunned by the ferocity of her anger on his behalf. Then he snaps to attention. He zigs to the right, pointing emphatically to his left. Max realizes in a flash what she has to do;  plants her feet and fires.

The demodog lights up like a white Christmas tree, pivots toward her, and charges.

She runs for all she's worth, hears a whoosh and her back explodes in agony, making her stumble. She's on the ground in a ball, squeezing her eyes shut tightly, expecting an impact.....that never comes.

Jane's voice cuts through her fog. "Run!"

She twists onto her flaming back; sees the underside of a half visible demodog floating, midair, above her. She scrambles out from under it just as Jane flicks her wrist and sends it flying into a wall of the lab, it's lifeless body landing with a crunch that would probably be deeply satisfying if she weren't in so much pain.

Lucas is sprinting toward her now. She feels hands at her back; hears him breathe a stunned, oh shit, and promptly passes out. 

 

 

 

When Max wakes up the first time, her lungs and her back are throbbing. She feels the rhythmic bounce-bounce of being carried, smells traces of monster slime, cigarette smoke, and Farrah Fawcett hairspray. It takes a seemingly impossible amount of effort, but she slits her eyes open; takes in a view of Steve's shirt against her face, his hair dangling a few inches above her head. She has enough time to glimpse Billy, stony face and cradling his arm, beside them, before the black dots take over and she slips under.

When she wakes up again, she's on Hopper's couch, at the cabin. There's a fire in her back and Lucas is holding her hand tight.

"Don't move!" He says, in an urgent voice, "Mrs. Byers is sewing you up."

"Sewing me--"

"Yeah, one got you in the back. Pretty bad, too."

She grimaces.

"Everyone else?"

"We're all a little banged up," he says, ducking his head, "me and Mike took one down on our own but....Mike got bit on the leg. Hopper's got some pretty good gashes. Billy popped his shoulder out but they got it back in. Had to put a few stitches in his arm, too."

"Steve?"

"Just messed up my hair," Steve's drawls from behind her, "thanks to Jane."

"It was nothing." Jane says, in that serious way of hers, and for some reason that makes everyone laugh. It's the exhausted, hysterical laughter of people who are thankful to be alive, but it still feels good.

When they're done, Joyce pats her shoulder and says, "OK, Red. Try to sit still, only a few stitches left."

"I'm ok." She responds, but she's mostly trying to reassure herself because damn does that sting. She hasn't been in this much pain in a long time.

But it was worth it. If she hadn't been there....she cautions a glance in Billy's direction, but his eyes are closed, face unreadable. She watches as Steve walks up to him, lifts his hand gingerly and places a plastic cup of amber liquid firmly in his grasp. Billy smirks without opening his eyes; takes a sip.

Max has an ache in her gut. She remembers what happened when Neil found out she was dating Lucas; what it felt like to want what she couldn't have. She wonders fleetingly what it's like to have responsibility for another human being foisted upon you, to try your best even though you're not really equipped, all the while your father's voice is echoing in your head, berating you for a lack of responsibility; hating you for being who you are and wanting what you want.

Joyce gives her a gentle squeeze from behind, on the good side of her back. "That should hold up ok."

Max takes a deep, grounding breath. "I hope so." she says, and she's not talking about her back.

 

 

 

The party spends the next couple hours eating Hopper out of house and cabin. They munch on hot dogs and work out parental cover stories that the Chief and Joyce can later back them up on.

Pretty soon, it's time to part ways. Will has already called several times to check on everyone, so Joyce loads the other boys up in her car for the sleep over they've all planned, at her place.

Steve gets in the back seat of the camaro, and Max is honest to fuck praying she doesn't get lit up over this whole situation until after they drop him off. Her pride has taken enough abuse lately, thank you very much.

As usual, God is completely blasé to her needs, because the first thing Billy does is fire up a cigarette and say in a particularly menacing voice, "You not hear the part about staying in the safe zone?"

"Yeah," she mutters, "I heard it."

"I knew you wouldn't listen! That's why I didn't want you there -- 'cause I can't fucking trust you to ever do what you're s'posed to!"

She bites her tongue. He's not wrong, but that last bit stung and she's pretty sure any response that flies out of her mouth will be ugly.

He takes a deep drag of smoke; turns over the engine and listens to it's rumble. Finally, he cuts his eyes to her. "You had enough monster hunting, now that you scared the fuck out of me and got twelve stitches in your back?"

Max really wants to say yes; wants to tell him what he needs to hear and make everything better. But --

"I know you're mad," she says instead, "but I couldn't stay in the safe zone and watch while you were in danger. I couldn't help myself, I --" she stops short, then blurts it out, "I care about you, asshole. And you're not like him, either. Not anymore. Haven't been in a long time." She pauses, suddenly drained, and mutters, "I was just saying what I knew would hurt you."

Billy stares out the windshield. "I think your arm might disagree with that."

"My arm is fine."

"It's not fine. Don't start thinking that shit is fine. Don't you ever excuse that from anyone or some day you'll end up married to someone who treats you like Dad did!" He stops short; gives his head an emphatic shake, "Promise me, Max."

"OK."

"No ok." He grits out, low and serious, "Promise. Promise not to excuse that kind of shit from anyone, ever. Even me. I swear I'll never put a mark on you again, but if something happens, if I lose my shit--"

"You won't."

"Promise."

"I do. OK." She says, and fuck if she doesn't feel like crying. "I promise."

The car drifts into silence; slows to a manageable pace as she stares out the window, trying to will her heartbeat to do the same.

After a few minutes, Steve clears his throat loudly and says, "How long are we doing this for?"

Billy shoots an eye roll at him in the mirror, but it's laced with fond exasperation. "Shut it, Harrington."

Max looks from one to the other, eager to be on familiar ground. And bickering is definitely familiar ground. "The hell you guys talking about?"

"Well," Billy drawls, "it's pretty obvious that I can't stop you from joining us unless I'm willing to nail you to the wall -- which I considered, by the way. And you blew the whole 'safety zone' thing right out of the water, so I guess the next best thing is teaching you to at least do it right."

"Yeah," Steve chimes in, "starting with target practice. Jesus, Max, I thought you were going to blow someone's head off today!"

She stares at Billy, mouth wide open. "Wait -- what? You mean I can come next time?"

"Not next time. But, sometimes." He shoots her an emphatic glance, "And not until I think you're ready, and you're not getting a gun--"

"But Steve just said--"

"Yeah, no. I don't care what Steve said."

Steve pops his feet up on the headrest, right beside her face. "Quit being such a hard ass." he says.

"What? She can have a bat."

"Oh yeah? What? With tacks in it? Toothpicks? How 'bout some training wheels?"

"I'm satisfied with a bat." Max says, hastily.

"Either way, you need some practice," says Steve, "you should probably join girls softball or something."

"If it doesn't interfere with detention." Billy mutters.

Steve chuckles. "Says the former king of detention."

"I have a condition."

Billy shoots her an incredulous glare. "You really think you're in a position to make demands?"

"Yep."

"Fine. Spit it out."

"You gotta pull over."

"Maxine, quit fucking around."

"No, I'm serious. Pull over and let Steve get up front."

Billy pulls over, and she can tell by the look on his face that it's not because she asked. It's because he's on to her. "This is not up for discussion."

"Oh, I don't know," says Steve, "I'm interested in what she has to say."

"She doesn't understand what's at stake."

"Yes, I do. And I'm sick of watching you try to be someone you're not. Everybody knows Freddy Mercury likes boys, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for you losers."

"It's not that easy, Max."

She crosses her arms. Gives him the look that means she's not budging. "Yeah, it is. It doesn't have to be anyone else's business but yours. I mean, c'mon Billy, we could move in with Steve and nobody would even question it. Everybody knows we're broke, and the people who care about us will accept it. I know they will."

Billy makes a noise that sounds a lot like a seagull with a french fry stuck in it's beak, but Steve sits up so his head is between them; says, "Why don't you quit being such a chicken shit? You know you want me."

"I do." He says quietly, into the steering wheel.

"Your dad was wrong," Steve's voice goes serious, "and he's dead. You gonna waste your whole life because of him? How's that any better than Max marrying some loser who hits her, someday?"

Billy nods; seems to smirk, despite himself. "You're such an asshole."

"Takes one to know one."

"Jesus," Max groans, popping her door open, "I'm so going to regret this."

"See?" Steve nudges him, "This is paying off already! Look how much we can annoy your step sister!"

Billy turns in his seat. He regards Max for a few seconds, waits for her to look his way.

"Don't call her that." He says, mildly.

"Don't call her what?"

"Step sister." he says, "It's not step sister. It's just sister."

 

 

*****

Epilogue added 7/11/19

Chapter Text

Epilogue

 

Eight Days Before Graduation:

 

"I'm saving up for a motorcycle."

"The fuck you are." Billy says around a mouth full of potatoes. "No way."

"Shocker." Max mutters. His answer to everything has been a solid "NO" for weeks -- ever since spring came and talk of her pending graduation came with it.

Parent night for softball team seniors: And have all the Hawkins housewives flirting with me? Don't think so. And if you ever ask me to go to a parent thing again I'll shave your head in your sleep.

College choices: How the fuck am I supposed to know what college you should go to? Am I getting paid to be your guidance counselor, now?

Visiting campuses: Do I look like an independently wealthy person who can take unlimited time off from work?

Financial aid: You need to see my taxes? Sure, shitbird, I'll get right on that. That's a real priority. I don’t even know where they are.....

'Thank GOD for Steve', she thinks, as she eyes him across the kitchen table. Because Steve might not be the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to numbers, but he was willing to struggle through the endless financial aid paperwork with her and sweet talk Billy into coughing up his taxes. He'd also been positively excited to visit campuses with her, a fact she felt kind of bad about when she remembered he hadn't been able to get in anywhere. 

Billy opens his mouth but Steve holds up a hand before World-War-Whatever-Number-They're-On-Now-He's-Honestly-Lost-Track can commence. "I think he just means they're danger--"

"No, I mean no fucking way."

 Max puts her fork down. "I'm almost 18."

"And believe me, Maxine, nobody is happier about that than me."

It probably shouldn't, given his general dickishness lately, but the sting in her chest catches her off guard. These last couple years; being in love, being less stressed about money, presumably getting laid regularly (gag me, she thinks, but still) -- he's been positively mellow. Ok, mellow-ish.....by Billy standards. But lately? Lately he's on the war path, and she's about had enough of getting the brunt of it.

"You're such an asshole!!" 

She runs for her room; slams the door loud enough for half of Hawkins to hear it.

Billy pushes his plate away.

"Nice job." Steve says to his back as he heads out the door.

 

 

Seven Days Before Graduation:

 

They stand toe to toe in the garage, where Max can't hear them.

"Why don't you just admit you're having a hard time letting her go?"

"Because I'm not." Billy says, arms crossed, eyes darting away from Steve's gaze.

"OK then, let's get her a cycle for graduation." That earns him a glare. "I swear you are like some kind of rabid bulldog lately. We're running out of time, we gotta get her something."

"You are not buying her one."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't need your fucking charity, for one thing."

Steve sighs a long, put upon sigh. "Babe. We've been over this. You guys are family. It's not charity. "

"Feels like it to me."

"Stubborn asshole."

"You can't just buy her whatever she wants!"

"Jesus Christ." Steve notes the tension in Billy's face; eyebrows arched, jaw ticking, blue eyes unreadable beneath heavy lids. "What is your problem?"

"I don't have a problem."

Steve shifts his weight, props his hands on his hips. "God forbid you let her know you care about her--"

"Not now." Billy growls and shoots him a pleading glance. "Please."

"Okay." Says Steve, then changes tracks, "Listen -- it's not like we're gonna have kids someday, right?"

"I certainly fucking hope not. I never asked for this shit in the first place."

"So let me do this for Max."

A huff.

"Harrington." Billy mutters, sounding exasperated.

Steve smirks. Harrington, means he's won. "You know I love it when you call me that."

Billy rolls his eyes so hard Steve's kind of worried one might get stuck.  

"If you buy a used one, I'll fix it up."

 

 

 

Five Days Before Graduation:

 

"Yeah, you have anyone who can airbrush?" Billy barks into the phone, black cord wrapped around his dirty forearm. He's on break at work, flipping through the boss's rolodex for body men. "Someone talented, I mean. I don't want it lookin' like some tacky 70's van. It's for my sister."

The bike is sitting in a corner of the shop, under a tarp, in case Max stops in, which is unlikely since she's not speaking to him. Again. And he knows he deserves it. He still thinks the bike is a shitty idea, and it's not because he suddenly thinks she's some delicate flower who can't handle one. But. He doesn't like to think about why, so he bitches. He pretends he hates working on it; claims it's been a pain in the ass every step of the way, just like it's future owner.

He hangs up on the hapless body man. He didn't sound professional enough. This needs to be done right.

Billy does a couple oil changes and goes back to harassing body men.

He hates this. He does.

But it needs to be perfect.

 

 

Four Days Before Graduation:

 

 

"Who ate the leftover pizza?" Max stands by the table, looking hangry as hell.

"That's really the first thing you're gonna say to me all week?" Billy asks, without looking up. "I paid for it. I get the leftovers."

"I was looking forward to it all day."

"Yeah? And I'm looking forward to the day I can eat cold pizza without being interrogated. Have a hot dog."

"I don't want a hot dog." Max sticks her chin out. "I want pizza."

Billy narrows his eyes, finally looks at her. "Grow up."

"I did, and all you've done so far is be pissed at me for it!"

She slams the pizza box back on the table and shoves it toward him.

"Watch it." He growls. 

Steve has been standing by the sink, hoping this would blow over, and now that it hasn't -- he turns just as Billy heads out the door again, hears the camaro roaring angrily to life seconds later.

Max dissolves into tears.

He pats her back; pulls out a chair for her, then sits beside her.

"He says he'll be happy to get rid of me but he's being a bigger jackass than ever!"

"Well," Steve muses, "not ever."

"You know what I mean." she replies, slumping  down in the chair. "He's acting like he used to, when he hated me. He knows I love cold pizza. He always saves me the last piece!"

"Max, he never really hated you. You know that. And this wasn't about pizza. C'mon." He pauses, choosing his words carefully, "You guys aren't good at this kind of thing. It's like it's easier to let go if you're mad at each other."

Max doesn't have words to respond to that. She gets up. "I'm gonna go get another damn pizza."

Steve listens to his door slam for the second time in 5 minutes; pours himself a very tall glass of gin, and pretends to add tonic.

 

 

 

Three Days Before Graduation:

 

Max leaves for graduation rehearsal at 8 am and by almost-midnight, she's still not home.

Billy is practically frothing at the mouth.

He calls the Chief, who casually informs him that Max decided to spend the night at their place.

"She didn't tell you?"

"You think I'd be calling you at 11 o'fucking clock at night if she told me?"

"Yeah, yeah. OK. Well, she's here. Said she needed some space. Something about you turning into," Hopper pauses, and Billy can practically feel the way the man's mustache is twitching in amusement, "hmmm, I think it was a grumpy old man with ugly hair and a stupid car." Chief's voice muffles as he shifts the phone, "I get it all, Red?"

He hears Max in the background, drawling, "You forgot pizza hogging douchebag."

"She's got your mouth, Hargrove, you gotta admi--"

Billy hangs up; goes to find Steve.

"Did she tell you she was staying with El tonight?"

"Uh, no, but she's--"

 "I'm grounding her ass for a month."

"Mmmhmmm." Steve glances at him, noncommittal, then does a double take at his expression.  He sits up in bed. "First of all, she's graduating high school in three days. Second, she's almost 18." He smirks. "Third, we both know that’s not really gonna happen, because you don't have the heart for it, anymore, and you can't take the moping. And last.....honestly? You deserve the heart attack. You've been a nightmare for weeks now."

He can't really disagree with any of that (a mopey Max really gets him in the gut these days, it's true, and he's not exactly sure when he got so damn soft), but he's also feeling prickly and distinctly un-amused (his hair is not ugly.....that shit's inexcusable) so he pretends to be indignant and says, "Have not."

"Oh, really?"

He huffs; stares at the bed, then at Steve, who is wearing an expression that says he can't decide whether to cuddle him or kick his ass. Something in his chest heaves a little. "Fine." 

"Look," Steve says, softly like he's addressing a wounded animal, "you've been counting down to this time for as long as we've been together. And she'll be ok. She thinks you're a massive pain in the ass, " he smiles, brown eyes crinkling at the corners, "that means you did ok. She's ready."

"I know." Billy runs a frustrated hand through his hair. "I don't know what's wrong with me, I don't know why--"

"Emotions."

He rolls his eyes. "Stop."

"No, babe. I'm serious. You suck at emotions. Especially when it comes to family, or the past. Remember how hard you were on Max when your mom popped back up on the radar and she set up that reunion behind your back?"

Billy shakes his head. That time he actually did ground her ass for a month , and he still feels like a heel about how it went down. Even though she'd been a sneaky, meddling little shit, her intentions were mostly pure when she dug the letter from his mom out of the trash and called the number it contained to set up a meeting. She hadn't realized the mine field she stumbled into; had naively thought he’d change his mind when he laid eyes on the woman. But when his mother showed up at their door and he found out how she got there -- he was so enraged he actually lost his vision for a few seconds. By the time he got a grip on himself, Steve was standing in front of Max with arms out, and Billy; well, for all his youthful violence, it was the closest he'd ever come to actually hitting Max, and the humiliation still smarts two years later.

"That's low." He says, quiet and serious. "Why would you even bring that up?"

"Because it's same shit, different day. When it comes to your family, you can't process it so you....."

"I know." He rolls his eyes. "Fine. I turn into a dick. I'm just--"

"Scared?"

Billy gives him a steady eyed glower. "God, I hate you."

"I know."

He sits down on the edge of the bed; whispers, "I'm not worried about Max. I know she can take care of herself. But.....what do I do with myself now?"

Steve is a patient man, but it's been a long ass few weeks and, "Excuse me? Am I chopped liver?"

"No. I mean, I'm glad I have you. I'm---that's part of my problem, ok? What if I lose you, too?  What if holding it together for Max was-- what if I turn back into who I used to be without that pressure?"

"Not gonna happen."

"But, how do you know?" Billy asks, and the fear is so raw, so evident, Steve's frustration washes away.

"Well, because for one thing, I'll kick your ass," Steve shoots him a filthy look, "and not in the fun way. And because I know exactly what we're going to do when she's at college."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. And you're not gonna have time to turn back into an asshole. Trust me. You're going to be busy."

"Hmm."

"Yup. First of all, you're going to fuck me in every room of this house --"

"Except hers."

"Of course. Gross. And then, we are going to be 23 and without responsibility for the first time in years. We're going to party. We're going to get high without worrying about setting a bad example, and fuck some more, and drink too much, and go on vacation, and fuck some more. We're gonna be young a while. "

Billy regards him thoughtfully, before finally cracking a smile.

"You'll still make us turkey on Thanksgiving, though, right? When she comes home and we do family shit?"

Steve pauses; studies him. He'd missed it, somehow, how much Billy needs the stability of their little family structure. "Like a boss." He says.

A couple beats pass.

"Sorry." Billy murmurs.

"Tell it to Max." says Steve, with a penetrating glance.

"I will."

"Ok, then. I'm sure you can make it up to me somehow."

"Well, I mean, we are home alone, tonight."

"Huh. Would ya look at that...."

"We need to get in shape if we're gonna execute that plan of yours."

Steve grins. "Very true."

 

 

 

Two Days Before Graduation:



Billy finally finds an airbrush artist that meets his standards.

He draws complicated plans for what he wants, harasses the poor guy endlessly over the color mixing, pays up the ass for the rush job, and literally paces the floor outside the paint booth as it's being done, like a man waiting for a newborn baby.

It's perfect.

 

 

 

Graduation Day:

 

 

Billy sits on the edge of Maxine's bed, sipping his coffee and listening to her snore. It's still pretty early, but he couldn't sleep, and the cool air feels nice coming through her half open window.

He knows she's still really hurt about his attitude lately, and he has to concede he can't blame her. It gets him thinking about the last few years. He can laugh about some of their fights, now. Like when Steve actually moved out of his own house and spent two weeks in a motel because they quit smoking at the same time and he couldn't take the bickering. Or when she accidentally hit him in the arm with a nail bat because he got overprotective and jumped in front of her -- then they stood, oblivious, in the middle of a demodog battle and argued for ten minutes over who was to blame. The nerds still won't let them live that down.

Other things, he can't smile about quite yet. Like when she had a pregnancy scare her junior year and went to Steve instead of him (they still don't know he knows). He didn't care that she was fooling around, but he'd told her a billion times to be safe, even drove her to planned parenthood for the pills she was apparently really bad at remembering -- and then she went to Steve?

Or the thing with his mom. He's still mad at himself for his momentary loss of control. Hell, hadn't he been the one to make her promise? If I ever lose my shit....

And now she's decided to grow up and get a goddamn motorcycle and go away to college.

The nerve.

He reminds himself of what Steve said the other night, in the soft lamp light when the rest of the town was asleep. You won't go back to "old Billy". I won't let you. And Max will always be your sister. Even if it's not blood, you guys are bonded for life. And I'll be here, too. Every day. Even when you're a giant pain in the ass.

And isn't that all anyone can ask for, really?

He listens to the birds chirping and feels a sudden rush of gratitude for Steve. Max has a nice bedroom, in a middle class neighborhood. There's an old prom dress peeking out of her closet, and more shoes than any human being should need. They're comfortable, now, and not just financially, but in other ways. Ways that matter.

Somehow, Steve has always known when to stand between them and when to let them have it out; been there through thick and thin these last couple years. He bandaged their fractured family the best he could; brought them stability with holiday traditions and trips to the Hawkins drive in with the nerd patrol; joining them on the occasional vacation back to Cali.

He thinks about one particular Labor Day trip when he and Max laughed in the sunshine at Steve's surfing attempts until they were rolling in the sand. How excited they'd been to get him boardwalk fries and share their pre-Hawkins way of life with him.

He studies her closely and tries not to push away the stir of affection that comes when he sees the scar under her chin. About six months after they moved in with Steve he'd gotten a call from the principal. Max was in a fight; wiped the gymnasium floor with a boy in her class and split her chin open in the process.

"The hell happened?" He'd asked, gruffly, when they got in the car.

Max crossed her arms tight, looked out the window. The car sank into silence. He wasn't going to move until she talked, and she wasn't ready to talk. This was a dance they'd been doing a lot lately, now that they were trying to scream at each other less.

Minutes ticked by, before she finally twisted around to face him, chin bandaged and daggers in her eyes. "He called you a faggot!"

"Oh."

Billy honestly didn't know what else to say. His emotions wavered between anger, pain and amusement. She was so damn scrappy, sometimes he was sure she really was a Hargrove. And he couldn't help but be heart-warmed by her ferocious defense of him.

"And you're not allowed to be mad," she told him, "because you've gotten into at least two fights over it, too. I know you have."

Jesus. Why couldn't he have been landed with a less observant kid?

"Nobody bothers me about it anymore." He remarked evenly.

She snorted. "That's not because of your ass kicking skills. That's because Hopper started threatening people."

He studied her, then put the car in drive; took her to Friendly's for ice cream and then threw her the keys. "Let's go to the quarry."

As she switched off the ignition, he lit up a smoke from the stash he kept hidden under the seat. "We can split one," he said, "as long as you don't tell Steve."

She held up two fingers. "Scout's honor."

"That's a peace sign, dipshit." He informed her matter of factly,  before taking a drag and handing it over. When she looked up, he pinned her with a neutral, unflinching gaze. "You can't fight my battles for me."

"Like hell I can't."

" I mean it, Max--"

She flew at him then, wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a fierce and completely unprecedented hug. He went tight as a guitar string; couldn't make himself hug her back -- hell he wasn't even sure he could breathe. Finally he patted her awkwardly on the head, and she pulled away.

 She wiped her eyes and hit him with a defiant, determined expression. "If someone fought your battles for you when they should have, you might be able to hug now." She said, "So don't tell me I can't."

Billy shakes his head, sniffs loudly and shelves a pang of guilt that he couldn't hug her back. He sips his coffee and looks around her room; notes the college brochures on her dresser, sees the old skateboard abandoned in a dusty corner.

He knows he's been a first class asshole the last few weeks. He should've gone to parent night for softball; should've visited campuses with her and Steve and handed over his financials instead of being embarrassed by the numbers. (Turns out embarrassing numbers are a good thing when applying for student aid. He takes a certain perverse pride in the fact that his shitty job scored Max so much of it.)

He should've saved her the last piece of cold pizza.

But there was stuff going on in his brain; stuff even the little voice was at a loss to explain. His annoying kid sister, like it or not, had grown up. The day he'd been waiting so long for was fast approaching, and he'd been shocked to discover how much he hated it.

In the morning stillness, he finally has to admit: Max is his kid. And, even more terrifying, deep down under layers of emotional wreckage and scar tissue, he loves her.

He does.

She makes a noise in her sleep (he can't really tell if it's a burp, a fart, or a snort) and it makes him laugh; brings him back to earth. He drains his cup and shakes her leg until she stretches; gives him a bleary eyed glare.

"Wha?" She looks around at the half gray light. "I don't have to be up yet."

"I know," he says, nonchalantly, "you were fartin' in your sleep. I couldn't take it anymore."

"Shut up," Max looks hilariously indignant, "I was not."

"Whatever, man." He shrugs elaborately, then smirks at the rising color in her face; clears his throat. "Sorry for being such a dick, lately. You were right when you said I was pissed at you for growing up."

Max contemplates him a few seconds, then graces him with a smile he most definitely doesn't deserve.

"Come on," he says, quickly. He's not sure he can handle a heart to heart at the moment, so he wants to get her moving. "We got you something."

That gets her up, better than bacon. She stumbles down the stairs in the Megadeath tee shirt (it fits now), and a pair of sweatpants, hair in her face.

Steve has been waiting, over his own cup of coffee, and he stifles a grin at the soft look on Billy's face. He whispers every room in the house, very succinctly, before following him out to the driveway.

When she sees it, her eyes light up and her mouth hangs open.

"I guess you won't be skateboarding to your high school graduation after all." Billy says.

Max glances at him, then at Steve. "I'll be riding in like a badass!" she says before letting loose with an excited squeal and running over to look at it better. She runs her hands over the spotless new tires, the leather seat and the shiny, freshly cleaned motor. She stops when she sees the gas tank.

"Mad Max" is outlined in air brush, in all her favorite colors. She tears up; gives Steve a quick hug and turns to find Billy.

This time, he hugs back. 

Chapter Text


One thing about the camaro: it's loud.

When Max comes out of student housing, she knows where it's idling, immediately; sees the dark form in the drivers seat, probably getting impatient. She grins to herself as she makes her way along the snow covered sidewalk to where it's parked.

"Didn't think about the snow, when you wanted a motorcycle, did ya, shitbird?" Is what greets her, even as her breath is still foggy. She throws her duffel in the back seat, before sliding up front. The car is nice and warm; runs hot, like it's owner.

"Yeah," she says, "but how would we get this quality time together, if I had?"

Billy offers up a wicked grin, then guns the engine, fishtailing out of the parking lot.

"Hey!" She protests, "You're gonna get my parking pass revoked!"

"I paid for your parking pass, so I figure I get," he glances at her, "a pass."

"Oh my God," she snickers, "don't ever do that again. I've only been gone 3 months and you turned into a dork while I was away."

"It's Steve's influence." He says, "I'm still a badass."

She fakes a yawn. "Uh-huh. You guys probably sit around watching Jeopardy and knitting sweaters all the time now."

"Nope. Actually we have lots of--"

Max immediately sticks her fingers in her ears. "LALALALALA."

"Fun." He says, when she stops. He looks the picture of wholesome innocence, but there's an evil glint in his eye. "Lots of fun."

And for the record, they are having lots of fun, among other things. But, in the moments between the fun, the house can get way too quiet; no nerds coming and going, no walkie squawking from upstairs, no Max trying to wheedle him into letting her take part in some hare brained scheme. The time with Steve is great, don't get him wrong. But in those still, quiet moments, he does something he never, in his whole entire life, thought he'd do: he misses Maxine.

Her stomach grumbles so loud, he can hear it from the driver's seat; over the roar of the camaro.

"Please tell me Steve's making dinner," she says, "I'm so done with cafeteria food."

"He is." He confirms, "Something you like, too. He missed you for some strange reason."

"Mmm-hmm." She shoots him a knowing glance, out of the corner of her eye. Apparently they aren't going to talk about all the times he's called under false pretenses, to make sure she's ok.

 

Hey dork, where'd you leave the uh, the scissors. We can't find them.

Hi dipshit, you got mail from Publisher's Clearing House. You want me to open it? If you won a million, I get half. You've cost me at least that much in groceries.

Listen, nerd, I need to know what channel A-Team is on, again....

Maxine, did you stick your fuckin' gum under my dash before you left?

OK, she had left the wad of gum. She couldn't really count that one.

They're almost home when he asks, "So.....Lucas?"

Max shrugs, and he doesn't push it.

Two weeks ago, she called the house; crying hard from the dormitory pay phone. Billy already knew what was going on; knew that Lucas had called her the day before, saying he was confused and needed a break. (Lucas told Dustin; Dustin told Steve; Steve told Billy). For all her bravado, part of Max is still very much a scared kid who's been smacked around too much, just like Billy, and he knows it. So, he'd been half expecting the phone call, but  was still knocked sideways by the wobble in her voice and the fact that she wanted to talk to him, not the gentler, more patient, Steve. And as much as he clearly remembered being 18 and wanting to play the field (all of the field, as a matter of fact), part of him still wanted to go find Sinclair and shake him until his teeth rattled for making her cry.

You'll be ok without him, Max, he'd said, low in the phone; unable to help the softness in his voice, you're strong.

Suddenly, she perks up; points toward his favorite watering hole as it whizzes past. "Oh! Let's stop at Ralph's!"

"What?" He asks, brain scrambling to catch up with the subject change, then a knee jerk, "No."

"What do you mean 'no'? I'm 18! C'mon, Billy, you don't have to be my guard dog anymore. I'm legal." She wheedles; bats her eyelashes. "One beer. Maybe some fries. You know dinner will be late."

He glances at her and smirks. She's not wrong. Sometimes he forgets, but they are both legal adults now, and he'd put money on Steve having started dinner late, given he was wrapped up in some ridiculous sci-fi movie when he left. He pulls over by the "Welcome to Hawkins" sign and turns around. One beer can't hurt. Besides, ever since that gut wrenching phone call, he's been secretly (he does have a reputation to protect) trying to think of some way to cheer her up.

 

 

 

 

They settle in on bar stools, and he can not describe how weird he feels, sitting next to her in a place he'd have kicked her ass for going to, just a year before. She seems to sense his discomfort; elbows him in the ribs.

"Hey, RJ." She says to the bartender. RJ is short for Ralph Junior, his Dad having been the original Ralph the place was named after.

The guy nods; mutters, "Hey, Max."

Billy gives her the fish eye. "How you know RJ?"

Max gets a bit pink around the cheeks; looks cagey, though not necessarily repentant. Ralph's never has been  particularly fussy about the age of their patrons. "You guys have fries?" She asks, hastily, even though there's a giant chalkboard directly across from them, with FRENCH FRIES written in hot pink.

RJ makes a face like he’s witnessing the most un-smooth cover up of his life, then walks toward the kitchen door; yells out, "FRIES".

"Maxine."

"Oh come on," she smiles sweetly, "you can't yell at me for it now."

"Statute of limitations is three years in Indiana," he mutters, "try me."

The little voice in his head laughs a low rumble.

He glances around the room. Ralph's is a dive, no doubt about it. It smells like fryer grease, cigarette smoke and beer someone spilled, probably in the mid-50's, by his estimation. It's seen a lot of bar fights, too; just like Billy. He feels a certain kinship with the place.

Apparently, so does Max, he thinks, dryly.

RJ brings their beers and fries. He pops the TV on, even though there's little hope of hearing it. It's around 6 p.m. on a Friday, and while Ralph's isn't exactly a hot spot (that's one reason he likes it) there are enough people milling about to make for a low, constant buzz of conversation. Outside, it's already gotten dark, and through the window he can see snow falling, lightly, in the glow of the lone light Ralph Sr so tastefully hammered above the front door.

He's starting to feel warm and soft around the edges, between the comfort of a familiar place and his annoying little sister, by his side again. He's just about to tell Max this was a good idea, when the bitter wind blows a couple more guys into the bar.

They aren't guys he knows, per se, but he's definitely seen them around, and they're definitely already half in the bag. The decibel level in the place near doubles with their presence. RJ, like his father before him, isn't particularly bothered by things like ID's or overly drunk patrons. In fact, there's a handmade sign tacked above the bar that reads I'm a bartender, not a babysitter, so it's not surprising when he serves them without batting an eyelash.

They're bickering over the last French fry (he's going to let her have it, but not without a fight) when Drunk and Drunker, from down the bar, start hollering about buying the bar a round. RJ makes his way down the row, taking orders; stops in front of Billy and Max.

"Those guys are buying." He says, jutting a disinterested thumb over his shoulder.

"Yeah, we're good. Only staying for one."

"Oh come on!" Yells one of the guys. He stumbles off his stool, in a way that makes Billy decide this one must be Drunker. He weaves a path to where they're sitting. "Where's your hops-a-tality?"

That's....not a word. Ninth grade English might've earned Billy a black eye and a trip to summer school, but he at least knows that. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Max smirk.

Drunker, as he's been dubbed, is running his mouth ahead of his feet, so by the time he arrives in front of them, he's already done talking. He narrows his bloodshot eyes to study them, then grins like a dim light bulb has come on in his head. 

"Hey, aren't you that queer who lives in Harrington's house?" He asks, sounding more oblivious and curious than hostile.

Billy puts a firm grip on Maxine's arm, first thing. He knows she'll go to war over comments like that; is now on a first name basis with the high school principal, as a result. But, honestly? He can't be assed to get upset with people like this, anymore.

He gives the guy a glare that would shut any sober, intelligent man right the hell up.

But.

"And you're that little coon loving red head!"

OK.

Deep breaths.

That is going to require more than a threatening look. He never believed that bullshit from his father. He listened to it for years; ghosted his best friend in eighth grade because he couldn't risk being turned into a punching bag over it. He had to take it then. He does not have to take it now. And, whether he's currently dating Max or busy trying to figure himself out, Lucas is still family.

He gets up. Maxine is doing the same, so he uses her shoulder for leverage and shoves her butt back on the bar stool, in the process. "Excuse me?"

"Yeah!" The guy seems genuinely excited to have made a connection, and Billy can't tell if he's really this oblivious, or he's being facetious. He turns his head to his buddy and hollers down the bar, at a volume that drowns out all the other chatter, "Hey Bob! Bob! This is the one I was tellin' ya 'bout, from the high school graduation last summer! 'Member I was saying about the little red headed slut and her ni--"

Sometimes, Billy loses his shit because he's genuinely lost control.

Other times, he knows exactly what he's doing.

This time, it's definitely the latter.

He smiles; hits the guy with a vicious upper cut, hard enough that he flies through the air and lands, sprawled on his back, at his friend's feet. Billy follows him down the bar; stands there while the guy flails around. "There," he growls, voice low in the now silent bar, "now you don't have to yell."

Bob steps over his pal, quick as a snake; lands a hefty sucker punch to the gut, that doubles him over for a split second. He hears Maxine, in the background, screaming at people to get the fuck out of my way. On his way back to upright, Billy gives him a right fist in the face, then tackles him while he's distracted. He's in a rage, now, for sure, because Max is about to get involved, which he does not want, and because the bastard landed a punch, and that always makes him short a wire. He gets two more good slugs in before he hears her voice, again, and it stops him; grounds him. 

Bob is still conscious, and he takes that as a win. He is not about to go home and have to tell Steve he did it again; kept punching a man after he was down. And he's definitely not doing it in front of Max, who is currently--

"The fuck, Max?!" He hollers, sprinting to where she's riding piggy back style on the first guy's back, punching him mercilessly as he spins around trying to dislodge her.

A quick assessment tells him what happened. The first guy must have recovered, and was coming to help his friend, so she jumped him. Literally.

Billy's brain goes sideways at the realization that she's is in a bar fight with a full grown man, but then he remembers this is the same guy who called Lucas the unthinkable, and herself a slut, for being with him. He holds himself back; something that would have been impossible a few years before. Despite their current situation (which, at least, was a deliberate decision), he really has learned some self control. Coming so close to hitting Maxine, a couple years ago, really kicked his ass; finally taught him to temper the fire in his gut. He stays tense, in case she needs him, but as he's watching, it becomes clear she won't. She snakes one of her wiry arms around the guys neck and squeezes. He pitches her off, but Max's life has taught her to be quick on her feet, and she doesn't even stumble. He stops for a split second, apparently stunned by her agility, and she promptly kicks him square in the balls.

Billy really kind of wishes he could have a moment to shed a proud tear, but there's no time. He goes straight for her. Bob is trying, unsuccessfully, to get up; clearly still seeing stars. The other guy is on the floor, howling and holding his jewels. The rest of the bar is in chaos. People are yelling and shoving and it's obvious fists are about to start flying. He clamps a hand on her arm and heads for the back door.  They slip and slide through the fresh snow and slush, in the dark, before arriving breathless and wet at the camaro.

They pass Hopper, on the road, lights flashing on his cruiser, and what's left of their adrenaline spurs them into a bout of hysterical laughter.

Once they pull into the safety of the garage, Billy can't get out of the car fast enough. He half helps, half drags Max out her side; scrutinizes her up and down.

"You OK?"

"I'm fine," she insists, "are you ok?"

He hears the door between the kitchen and the garage open behind them, and turns just in time to see Steve's eyes go wide as saucers.

"What the hell did you guys get yourself into, now?"

Max grabs her bag, gives Steve a quick, tight hug, and disappears up the stairs.

"That little traitor." Billy mutters, before catching the concern in Steve's eyes and giving a wary sigh. "Okay, you have to hear the whole story before you say anything."

Steve is not impressed that he took Max to Ralphs and, for some reason, the rationale she used to talk him into it, doesn't seem to fly when Billy relays it. But, the deeper he gets into the story, the more his brows furrow in a familiar, time to  kill something, kind of way. By the time he tells him what they called Lucas and Max, he wouldn't be surprised if Steve decided to go back to Ralph's, himself, with the monster bats.

"That's Ike and Bob Stephens," he growls, "fucking assholes." Then, he leans across the table and gives Billy a kiss that promises greater rewards down the road; eyeballs him. "You've come a long way, Hargrove."

Billy glances away and clears his throat. "Hopper prob'ly show up here in a bit. We should eat before he does."

 

 

 

 

Two hours later, Steve has his feet in Billy's lap on the couch, watching a movie. Max is out cold, sprawled face down on the carpet, drooling.

"That does not look comfortable." Steve observes, idly.

"Serves her right, throwin' me to the wolves like that."

"Oh, so I'm a wolf now?" Steve pauses; smirks. "Actually, that could be fun."

Billy's, no doubt filthy, response is derailed by the ringing telephone. It's late, and they never did hear from the Sherriff, so there isn't much guesswork in who it could be.

"Need you to come down." Hopper says, when he picks up.

"Huh," says Billy, "figured you'd come right over."

"No," says Hopper, and he sounds serious enough to put Billy on edge, "I got a couple gentlemen here, talking about pressing charges."

"Jesus. And you want me tonight? It's late, Hop. What are you even still doing there?"

"Yeah, well, we had dinner plans but I spent my evening sorting out a bench clearing brawl over at Ralph's, instead. I'm sure you know nothing about that, though."

Ah, shit.

"Max is in bed." He says, despite the fact that she's currently standing right before him; messy hair and a carpet imprint on her face. He points at her emphatically and makes a zipper motion across his mouth, "I can't bring her, and she wasn't really involved, anyway."

"Red and her mouth are the last thing I need here right now, so leave her home."

As it turns out, Red is not so quickly left behind. Worse yet, college has made her a much better arguer. She insists she is so going and he is not doing this alone, then parks herself in the camaro while he's in the bathroom, and refuses to get out. When he peers into the backseat, there's Steve, too.

"Fuck sakes." He mutters under his breath as he climbs in and turns the key. "Max, Hopper doesn't want you there, and I don't want either of you there. What if they arrest me? You really think I want you guys to see that?"

Nobody says anything, so he figures they've ganged up on him and decided not to debate. They do that shit, sometimes. It makes him want to roll an eyeball right out of his head.

"Fine." He hisses, peels out of the garage and drives like 1985 Billy all the way there for retribution.

When they get there, Hopper puts up a hand. "Just Bill."

"I'm going, too! I was there! I kicked that guy in the--"

Billy shoots her a withering glare. "Shut up!"

Hopper closes his eyes like he feels a migraine coming, says with finality, "Red. No. You're a good kid, but your mouth will only make things worse." He nods at Steve, who reluctantly takes Max by the arm and starts guiding her toward a chair. Billy can hear her bitching from behind the thin walls of Hops office, but she's not getting anywhere. Steve has a strong grip, don't even ask how he knows. "She's in bed, huh?"

"She was." He responds, but it's half hearted. "Phone woke her up."

Hopper cocks a furry eyebrow; asks what happened. Billy tells him the whole story, watching his face closely, but it doesn't move. He's in professional mode.

"So yeah," Billy says, at the end, "I threw the first punch. I meant to do it, and I'd do it again."

Hopper's stroking his beard, and now he's looking across the desk at him with his monster hunting team mate face on, rather than his impassive, professional cop face.

"Seems they left a few parts out of their version."

Billy scoffs. "I'm shocked."

He nods slowly; says, "You know, the Stephens have a farm, out on route 8. They grow some potatoes and have a few cows roaming around. Old man's the salt of the earth but those boys," he grimaces, "not so much. They have their own special crop; a clearing way out in the woods. Pretty well hidden, but I came across it back when I was looking for those tunnels, and I check it now and then to make sure it's not getting any bigger."

"Chief." Billy says; shakes his head in mock disapproval.

"Can it, Hargrove." Is what he gets in return, but there's no masking the affection. "It's small enough, I can tell it's mostly personal use. I never busted 'em because I have a lot of respect for the old man, and he doesn't deserve to have his name all across the Hawkins Post because his sons are idiots. But," he shrugs, "still illegal."

The two men study each other a few seconds, then Hopper gets up. "Go sit with your family," he says, "this shouldn't take long."

And, it doesn't. Five minutes later, Ike and Bob pass them by in the waiting room; silent under Hopper's watchful eye. Ten minutes later, Max and the boys are back in the camaro, heading for home at a reasonable speed. Thirty minutes later, all three are piled on the couch like puppies, finishing the movie, and Hopper's crawling into a warm bed, next to Joyce.

She's been waiting, anxiously. She puts a soft, steady hand on the back of his head. "Did you have to arrest him?"

He snorts into his pillow. "Nah. Never planned to. Just wanted to get the real story; maybe rattle his cage a little for blowing our dinner plans. I knew what I had in my back pocket." He rolls over to face her; waggles his eyebrows. "You know," he says, thoughtfully, "I thought for sure the Hargroves suicide was going to end with Red hitching to the city and living on the streets. Never even crossed my mind the kid would step up like he has. Kicking and screaming, half the time, but they did it. Now, she's in college."

Joyce gives him a lopsided grin. "You're a good man, Hop."

And that he is.